TRAVELS WITH ROBERTO:
A SOUTH AMERICAN FANDANGO
I'm sitting in the Miami airport waiting to catch the red-eye to Buenos Aires, Argentina. I spend most of the waiting time reviewing what has become my "bible" for the past month, the Lonely Planet guide to "Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay." I can quote passages! I've been here for several hours now and with too much time to think and allow worries to creep into my brain. I'm about to leave the country to a place that speaks a different language than mine, I've only a general idea where I'm going to be, and I've limited funds and no credit cards! I am wondering exactly what I'm doing here? I've always traveled with a relatively detailed itinerary before - and here I am with only a vague plan at best! I alternate between nervous and excited.
10:00 P.M. I am on board the plane now, so I guess it's too late to turn back. Next stop, Argentina! It's going to be a rough night with little sleep in a cramped seat. Am I adventurous or stupid? Probably both! With as many times as I've read the guide book and other sources, I know I'm as ready as I'm going to get. Will that be good enough? My limited Spanish will be getting a real challenge. I get out my Spanish phrase book and settle in my seat. I worry that my most common phrase will be "No Entiende."
11:45 P.M. The flight attendants are serving dinner: steak, chicken, or pasta. I take the pasta while wondering if I'll be able to stick close to my mostly vegetarian ways on this adventure. I've read that South Americans normally eat dinner very late, and with usually lots of beef on the menu.
12:30 A.M. I've got to try for some sleep. I'm too old for this all night party life! I pay no attention to the movie they show and can't even name it in the morning. 5:45 A.M. I awake to see the black curvature of the Earth with a thin orange glowing line above it, and pitch sky filled with glowing stars. I watch the orange line grow thicker and thicker until it glows Tennessee orange and the sky has turned to North Carolina blue. It is beautiful, the process taking almost an hour. 6:40 A.M. A bright orange sun comes up over the horizon, so bright now I lower the window shade. The pilot announces it is less than thirty minutes to landing and customs information is being shown on the movie screen. I am both very calm and very nervous!
The pilot informs us we have lost an hour from Miami and the local time is 8:00 A.M. as we come in to land. Outside it is dark green, gray, misty, flat and ghostly. My seat mate, an Argentina native, says it is also cold, so I get my sweater out of my backpack and put it on. I am ready for Argentina immigration. My guide book says they have big butterflies in South America, and I have several in my stomach. Customs is routine though, and I successfully complete my first transaction in Spanish as I purchase a bus ticket to the city center and head off to find the right bus. As I step outside, it is surprisingly very cold and wish I had brought a jacket instead of just a sweater.
8:35 A.M. I board the bus and sit for twenty-five minutes before we leave, hearing no English spoken anywhere. I have a good seat for views and am now excited. Shortly after we pull out, we are in lots of traffic and the going is slow. The landscape appears quite flat. I see "Pampas Grass" growing on the side of the road like we used to have by my former home in Houston, Texas. Then I remember I am now in the "Pampas!"
9:15 A.M. We are in city suburbs and "high rise" housing now appears. Lots of concrete, but for some reason they do not appear very well built to me. There are only occasional homes that appear to possibly be single family. The architecture is quite different and interesting. The road is quite rough and bumpy though. I can't write legibly for now, so will relax and enjoy the view. 10:30 A.M. As we enter deep into the city, I see some graffiti on a wall (in Spanish) that says, "Kill all the Yanquis," but next to it is an ad for an old movie "Casper the Friendly Ghost." That strikes me as funny!
After the bus stops at its city center terminal, I start walking to look for an inexpensive hotel, seeking one recommended in my guide book. Buenos Aires, or B.A. as the natives call it, is a huge city of over almost twelve million people! High rise housing is everywhere and most all buildings are multi-level. There doesn't appear to be many structures that could be classified as single family. Coming in on the bus, I saw lots of roof "patios" and small "gardens." Argentineans seem to drive slow, but probably out of necessity as roads are so crowded the cars always seem to be inches apart! It's a little nerve-wracking for those of us not used to such conditions. All buildings are brick or masonry of some kind, mostly masonry. Wood appears to be a rarity except for some occasional trim.
I check into the Hotel O'Rei, renting a room only @ 8' x 8' with a small table, one twin bed, and a wooden wardrobe. It meets only minimum standards, but is as inexpensive as I can find. Thirty dollars for two nights with "el bano" down the hall. I actually found it fun to negotiate a rate for the room in Spanish! I don't want to waste any time though, so after relieving myself of luggage and organizing my backpack, I'm off to walk this city and experience as much as I can in limited time. My backpack will be an intimate part of me over the next month, and I'm never without it. It even sleeps next to me! Though exhausted from the flight and lack of sleep, my adrenalin is now flowing. My body will feel better tomorrow, but I'm not about to waste today.
10:00 P.M. I'm back in my room for the night, having discovered my little hotel is in a great location. The entrance is on Calle Lavelle, less than two blocks from Calle Florida, and both streets are "peatonals," long pedestrian malls! Here I am, right in the heart of the city. Today, I have walked many miles, tasted many foods, drank some excellent "mate con leche," the national drink of South America, at Cafe Tortoni, and in total have had a wonderful day. I have brought with me seventeen University of Tennessee caps and seventeen shirts of various styles as "regalos" (gifts) or to "cambio" (exchange) with the locals. I made my first cambio in B.A. as I obtained a warm jacket from the owner of a small shop in exchange for a variety of UT items. My sweater was okay for the day, but when the sun went down the jacket was clearly needed. My day included seeing lots of traffic and some very interesting shops, restaurants and architecture.
The city is very crowded everywhere you go, but it doesn't seem to bother anyone. Things move and I see no evidence of impatience, temper, or violent behavior as often occurs in large U.S. cities. B.A. is half Latin and half European in influence, a very interesting mix. The people seem to dress very well, men in dress shirts, often with ties, and nice topcoats. Women in dressy outfits, but generally in very short skirts. It is the fashion to show lots of leg in Buenos Aires! The city is also known for chocolates, ice cream, Paraguayan mate tea, and coffee. I try them all and find they are all excellent. The ice cream may be the best I've ever had, and I'm raised in Wisconsin, the dairy capital of the U.S.! It all makes for a very pleasant day. I'm sure I'll try a few more ice cream flavors tomorrow.
In typical fashion for the rest of the world, B.A. is a walking city and do I ever walk! South on Florida to Seanz Pena, southeast to the Catedral Metropolitano and the Cabildo by Plaza de Mayo, to the Casa de Gobierno on the east side of the Plaza. The Catedral is very dark, but extremely large with fantastic stained glass. The Cabildo is now a museum that features interesting colonial architecture. The Plaza is quite large and beautiful, with pigeons everywhere of course. From there I head south, exploring several side streets on the way to San Telmo, the old artist's quarter of the city. I pause at several elementary schools to watch the boys playing futbol, and then sit and relax a few minutes at Plaza Dorrego in the midst of San Telmo. Heading west on Avenida Independencia, I make the long walk to Avenida 9 de Julio. Along the way I assist a young blind woman across the street, and later see several others help her. This attitude impresses me. The people seem to be very friendly here compared to a New York City, where I feel a cab might have squashed her by now.
Avenida 9 de Julio is actually a four lane street, a narrow grassy mall, a six lane street, another narrow grassy mall, and another four lane street. Total of fourteen lanes full of vehicles and lined with shops and high rise apartments on both sides! From 9 de Julio, I work my way back to Avenida de Mayo, but now several miles from the Plaza I visited earlier. I head back toward the Plaza, visiting little shops on the way, particularly "panaderias" for a fresh bakery snack. I stop at Cafe Tortoni, one of the most famous historical cafes in B.A., for a cup of hot mate tea, a drink I've already fallen in love with. Above the cafe is the "Academia Nacional Del Tango," the national dance of Argentina. From there it's back north the entire length of the Florida peatonal before heading back west on Lavelle to my hotel. I have very positive impressions of the city and it's people as I write in my journal before collapsing into bed at 11:35 P.M., exhausted.
8:00 A.M. My alarm goes off as I seek to get my body on Argentina time. I head down the hall to start with a shower in the Latin/European tradition, one of those where the pipe and nozzle come out of the wall and the bathroom is also the shower stall. Everything gets wet - you, sink, commode, walls and floor. The drain sits in the center of the floor. If you need to visit the commode after, you need to dry it off first! I later discover it is this way throughout the trip except for one night in Montevideo, Uruguay. The water is warm though, and that is what matters most.
There is no heat in the hotel and the morning air is quite cool. This is also the pattern throughout my adventure, no heat in any place I stay. The South American "central" heating system consists of wool blankets, one, two or even three as necessary. Generally no air conditioning either, though I later had a window unit in my last hotel in Asuncion, Paraguay. But the shower resurrected me and I feel surprisingly well to start the day, especially after stopping for breakfast at a nearby restaurant where I enjoy cafe con leche y dulce, pomme de manzana, and some small crispy toast with a caramel butter. I note Argentine cafe is quite strong.
My legs are only a little stiff as I head a few blocks west on Lavelle, north on Carlos Pellegrini, and west on Tucuman to Teatro Colon, B.A.'s internationally famous opera house, concert and stage theater. Built from 1890-1908, it seats 3000 on six levels with perfect acoustics, using no microphones anywhere in the building. They offered an English speaking tour and I take that with two women from Memphis, two young men from San Diego, and a young man serving in the Peace Corp in Chile. It is the first English I'd heard in two days except for a few odd words. The Teatro employs @ 1000 full-time personnel and features some type of performance almost every night. I am informed that Enrico Caruso performed here on two separate occasions. It is a magnificent building.
Across the street from the Teatro, I wander through Plaza Lavelle. The Plaza features huge trees - perhaps the widest I've ever seen! Each single tree provides an incredible amount of shade. I ask several passerbys what type of tree they are, but no one seems to know. Absolutely magnificent. 12:20 P.M. Leaving the Plaza, I decide to walk several blocks south to Corrientes, then head west for several miles out Corrientes. This area is filled with many cafes that are supposedly the "hang outs" for the "intellectuals" of Buenos Aires. I felt very much a part of the scene, as I stopped at "Pizza Guerrin" for cafe and three pieces of delicious pizza. Most pizza places in the areas I traveled sell pizza by the slice, a real plus for those of us who are traveling or dining alone. My guide book says Argentina is known for excellent pizza and I must agree.
From Corrientes, I wander several different streets, walking over two miles north to "Recoleta," the most exclusive residential area of B.A. It reminds me much of Paris or the New York Central Park area, high rise living with balconies, views, and streets lined with expensive clothing shops and wonderful restaurants and cafes. It is very beautiful. As I walk to the Recoleta Cemeteria, I read where even the cemetery is exclusive. Only those with certain family names are allowed to spend eternity there. The burial sites are family crypts with huge monuments on the site representing the family. Wealthy families that may have competed economically in life, seem to be trying to outdo each other even in death. I visited crypts of revolutionary heroes whose names were recognizable from my former history studies, but was most pleased to see the crypt of "Familia Duarte," and the coffin of Eva Peron. Her husband, Juan, couldn't get in and lies buried across town!
Leaving the cemetery, I stopped briefly at Plaza Alvear and admired the very large statue of B.G. Carlos de Alvear, and then strolled southeast on Quintana and east on Juncal several miles to Plaza San Martin. Turning back south, I visited the little church "Basilica del Sanlisimo Sacramento," small but with a lovely altar and nave area. There, I sat on the steps and wrote several postcards to family and friends. It is approaching dark as I write.
6:15 P.M. My guide book says the post office is open until seven, so I decide to head that way. It is another mile south and about four blocks east to the post office. It is open though and I get the cards mailed, surprised that they cost US$.80 each to mail. They were one dollar each to purchase, making for expensive cards overall! From the post office, it is only six blocks west to Florida and then a few blocks further on Florida and Lavelle back to the Hotel O'Rei. I stopped for "dinner" on the way at "San Ramos," an ice cream shop on Florida. More fantastico ice cream! It is 8:25 P.M. by the time I sit down to write my final thoughts for the day, and 9:10 P.M. by the time I'm ready to retire. I have an early wake up manana.
6:00 A.M. Alarm goes off and I rise, but maybe not shine yet. I pack everything and walk the five blocks to the office of Boquebus, where I'm to catch the bus to the ferry dock. From there I'm to take the ferry across the Rio de Plata to Colonia, Uruguay, and then the bus to Montevideo, Uruguay. When I purchased my ticket yesterday, I had been informed to be at the Boquebus office to catch the bus at 7:00 A.M., but I get there at 6:30. This turns out to be a good thing because the bus is there at 6:35 and pulls out at 6:45! It doesn't take long to discover that time in South America is a relative thing. Fifteen minutes later I am dropped at the ferry dock.
I have read that South American countries are known for having a few extra layers of government employees, and I now begin to discover that firsthand. Even though I had purchased my ticket in advance, it was now necessary to get in line to check in with the Boquebus person. I then attempt to go through Argentina immigration, but am told that is not possible until after 8:00 for my 9:00 sailing. I hear American accents and speak with a young married couple from Houston, and we decide to have coffee together while waiting. She grew up only about five miles from where my family lived in Houston and her parents now live in B.A. We enjoy a nice conversation about our Houston connections and our thoughts about B.A.
Soon it is 8:00 A.M. and I line up to pay my six dollar Argentina departure tax, and then go through Argentina immigracion and obtain my "salida" stamp. A few feet further is an immigracion official from Uruguay who stamps my passport with an "entrada." I find this interesting as I'm still in Argentina, now sitting in the ferry waiting room. What if I left? Boarding announcement comes about 8:40 and shortly after 9:00 A.M. I'm enjoying the smooth five mile ride across the Rio de Plata and the views of the B.A. skyline, and then the petite "skyline" of the village of Colonia, Uruguay. During the ride, I review my B.A. experience in my mind and the very positive impressions that I have of the city. I was quite comfortable strolling the streets of the Argentina capital. If the people weren't speaking Spanish and all the signs in Spanish, it is much like any major U.S. city except B.A. is generally cleaner, the people seem friendlier, and they dress much nicer! I already plan to go back for a longer visit.
9:30 A.M. The ferry docks at Colonia and I get to go through Uruguayan immigracion one more time. At first the official wanted me to open my luggage, but I was quite pleased with myself as I convinced him not to do so - in Espanol of course! The Houston couple starts walking into Colonia, while I board the waiting Boquebus for the three hour ride to Montevideo. The bus is very new and quite comfortable as I settle in my window seat, looking to enjoy the view. The countryside is very green and land rolling, covered mostly with farms and what appear to be Guernsey cows. With the Guernseys, it looks much like my grandfather's farm in Wisconsin! It appears, however, the land has been heavily deforested, and that bothers my personal environmentalist views. I shoot a few photos along the road of homes of the wealthy, the not so wealthy, and the shacks of "el pobre."
As we come nearer to Montevideo, I notice there are quite a few shacks on the outskirts of the city, but as we enter Montevideo itself, it is very impressive. I open my window and the air seems cool, crisp, and relatively clean. The city is on a thin peninsula jutting out into the Rio de Plata, so the breezes off the river keep the air of the central part of the city fresh and clean. I'm reminded of San Francisco, just a "flatter" version. I love San Francisco and immediately like Montevideo.
Upon arrival at the bus terminal, my Spanish and common sense skills are again put to the test. There must be twenty bus companies here, all with separate schedules and ticket offices, and maybe 600 people wandering about the terminal! It's "todos Espanol" now as I look for the cambio to exchange some of my funds for Uruguayan pesos. Suddenly, I have a lot of pesos in my pocket as the exchange rate is @ $6300 Uruguayan to $1 U.S. I now need to reserve a seat on a bus to Paysandu, Uruguay, northwest of Montevideo on the Rio Uruguay and the Argentina border. That is where the U.S. will be meeting Chile in a Copa America futbol match. I find three companies that go to Paysandu, and I choose Nunez. I purchase a reserved "ventana asiento" (window seat) on the 12:30 P.M. bus manana for @ thirteen dollars U.S. from a very pleasant and helpful young woman, then head outside to figure my next move.
I find it is several miles to the city center, too far to walk with my luggage, so I negotiate a cab. At my request, I'm dropped at the Hotel Alberque, the local Youth Hostel. The ride cost $20,000 pesos, which as near as I can figure is about $3.50 U.S.! Unfortunately, the hotel is "completo" and I start walking elsewhere in the area to find a room. After several attempts, I take a room at "Nuevo Pension Ideal" for $13.50 U.S. It is a tiny room just off the lobby, noisy, dark and a little depressing, but clean. Room #13 is only @ 8' x 7' but manages to contain a small double bed, night stand, small table with chair, and a wardrobe! Walking around space is very limited! It has a small private bano though, and the owners are extremely friendly and that leaves me feeling comfortable. My only concern traveling so far is cost as I'm spending over my original budget, about twice what I originally intended. If this keeps up, I will be returning to the U.S. earlier than planned. That is only a fleeting thought, however, as I settle my belongings in the room, organize my backpack, and it's off to see Montevideo.
I walk a few blocks northeast of the hotel to Plaza Cagancha and find one of the neatest little places I've ever seen, the Museo Pedagogico Jose Pedro Varela. Named for the man who devised the public education system in Uruguay, it is a museum about schools, teachers and education! Magnifico! There is lots of old educational "stuff" including a historical library of old books from schools of the past. Students of various ages are in the museum touring or studying in the library. I take a variety of photos and leave, impressed with the Uruguayan attitude toward teachers and education. Can you imagine such a museum in the U.S.? Dedicated to teachers and schools? A pipe dream to those of us in the educational field.
From Plaza Cagancha I start the long and scenic walk west on Avenida 18 de Julio, Montevideo's main street, about three miles to the docks area. Along the way I visit several beautiful plazas starting with Plaza de Entrevero with it's large, beautiful, fountain and the Church of Immaculata Conceptio nearby. Next comes Plaza Independencia, featuring the statue of Artigas, the single biggest statue I've ever seen after the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor. Fantastico! Then it is down the Calle Sarandi peatonal to Plaza Constitucion and the twin bell towered Catedral de Iglesia Matriz, finally ending up at the Mercado del Puerto near the waterfront. It is a very enjoyable walk on a lovely, bright, sunshine day with the temperature in the sixties Fahrenheit.
The Mercado del Puerto is especially interesting as I enjoy watching the various meats being grilled and observe the epicurean tastes of the locals. I note that food costs are definitely less expensive than Argentina, where costs were very similar to the U.S. I'm not a big meat eater, but do take time to sample one of the fancy desserts available in a small restaurant. I buy a Uruguayan winter hat for myself from a street merchant, the start the walk about four miles east to the Palacio Municipal, arriving after dark at about 6:30 P.M. From there it is back west and south about another mile or so to my hotel.
Of course I snacked at several places along the way, as it is my habit to try various local foods, particularly enjoying small "mom & pop" bakeries, delis, or restaurants. Today I tried a spinach pie, a veggie sandwich with peppers, several local sodas, and several flavors of ice cream! All were quite good except I didn't care for the particular peppers in the veggie sandwich. Upset my stomach a little, but nothing major. Hope it won't bother my sleep as I'm still a little tired today. It will be hard enough to sleep with the noise and a so-so mattress. I arrive back at the hotel about 8:30 P.M. and by the time I finish writing my final thoughts and am ready to retire it is 9:45 P.M. and sleep is no problem.
Overall, I retire very impressed by what appears to be another beautiful, cosmopolitan, half Latin and half European city. It seems much like a smaller version of B.A., with "only" about one million inhabitants. The Uruguayans drive much faster though, and I have been forced to hustle out of the way of many fast moving vehicles. B.A. is also more "fashionable" in terms of dress. Nice day and I sleep quite relaxed and well.
7:00 A.M. I awake without the alarm this morning and, not being a morning person, stumble into the shower. The water flow is weak but warm, and the shower is a success as I now feel great and am again ready to go! Within an hour I pack, check out of Room #13, and am on the road again with my thirty-nine pounds of luggage. Two doors down I buy two "media lunas" (crescent shaped rolls) for breakfast and walk the few blocks to Avenida 18 de Julio, turning east toward the bus terminal. It's a little over three miles to the bus terminal, but I want to see more of Montevideo so I figure I'll see how far I can walk with my luggage before tiring and hailing a cab.
As I walk, I enjoy looking at the various styles of architecture, the people and their dress, all the fashionable shops and not so fashionable, but quite interesting, street vendors. When my load gets too heavy I rest briefly at a plaza or bench along the way. Most impressive is Plaza de los Trienta y Tres, and the unique castle-like architecture of an adjacent building. I am also pleased to see the Biblioteca Nacional and, next door, the Universidad de la Nacion, with statues of Cervantes and Dante decorating their respective entrances. I walk around the universidad, asking a few questions of passerbys. From what I can gather, apparently the university is just one building, though an awfully big building!
Continuing east on 18 de Julio, I'm enjoying myself so much I don't realize how far I've been walking and @ 10:30 A.M. I stand outside the Tres Cruces Bus Terminal. There is one giant cross in the middle of the road here, so I ask a young woman where are the other two crosses? She laughs and tells me there are no other crosses, only the one, and no one knows why they call the area three crosses! I enter the bus terminal and now discover why it seemed so large to me when I first arrived in Montevideo. The terminal only opened in November of 1994 and is actually the bottom level of a two level shopping mall! When I originally arrived and caught a cab, I was only on the bottom level! Front the front of the building you only see one level also, not realizing it is the second (top) level you are looking at until you actually enter. No wonder it is always seems crowded. I walk downstairs and estimate there is a thousand people here this morning. The bus is clearly the transportation of choice in Uruguay!
I'm early for my bus so I decide to explore the area some. I visit the vendors stalls in a small mercado across the street, and also wander into a few small stores. I purchase dos lunitos, uno donut, y uno yogurt bebida in a family panaderia. I also buy a chocolate bar for the bus ride later. Walking back through the small mercado, I debate purchasing a handmade wool sweater priced at just $14 U.S., but decide the budget is too tight for that at this time. I take a seat in the waiting area of the bus terminal to enjoy my brunch. Thirty minutes later, I have an upset stomach. The yogurt here is more sour tasting than I'm used to and it didn't fully agree with me. 11:45 A.M. I visit a farmecia upstairs in the mall and obtain some chewable pills for the problem, taking two immediately.
12:15 P.M. It is time to check my luggage and board the bus. There is a lot of luggage, plus items being shipped, and the bins under the bus are stuffed with all sorts of things: tires, food, various boxes and luggage of all sizes. The bus goes all the way to Salto with other stops en route. My stop, Paysandu, is the last one before Salto. It appears most of the passengers are traveling to Salto, with about a half dozen of us to Paysandu. We depart at 12:40 P.M., about ten minutes late due to the luggage problem, but then we roll. The bus is full, but the seats are large and comfortable. I sit back to enjoy the view. It occurs to me that I still have my ticket and no one as asked to see it. I also notice there are two "workers" on the bus, one driver and one other whom I later discover is like a "conductor" on a train, collecting and selling tickets en route and assisting the driver as needed.
1:15 P.M. The conductor now comes around to check and collect our tickets. The tablets I chewed earlier seem to be helping some, and by 1:45 P.M. I feel fine again. This turns out to be the only time I feel the slightest bit ill the entire trip. Two hours out of thirty days is better than I usually feel at home! My seatmate is a long-haired young man from Montevideo traveling to Salto to visit his married sister. He is wearing faded jeans and a gray wool sweater with a wool black/blue/gray plaid patterned button up jacket. He is quite a bit darker than most of the Uruguayans I've seen, appearing to have some native Indian blood. He has long wavy black hair extending to six inches below his collar, medium built with a larger jagged scar across his nose. He doesn't understand a word of English, and we struggle to communicate some as we ride. I offer him a piece of Big Red chewing gum and he later offers a small chocolate in return. He soon dozes off though and by 1:50 P.M. he is sleeping and snoring!
I sit back enjoying the view for now, hoping there is no problem getting a room in Paysandu and a ticket to the U.S. vs Chile futbol match. It is another beautiful, blue sky, sixty degree day. 3:00 P.M. My seatmate is awake and we spend the next several hours in conversation, all in Spanish. Much of what I discover about Uruguay the next few hours comes from our conversation, and by the time we reach Paysandu I'm gaining confidence in my Spanish communication skills. He is Juan Francisco Alejandro Lehite, twenty-three years old. He had been snoring real loud for about an hour and under different circumstances it might have been annoying, but didn't seem so now. The bus seats are also very narrow, and our legs lie against each other as he slept. I have found Americans do not seem to like this closeness with a stranger, but it doesn't seem to bother the rest of the world - at least not the Latin cultures in general. I like their habit of kissing the cheek or cheeks of both men and women when they meet someone they know. Teenagers do this routinely on the street. It strikes me as a "warm" way to live and develop more closeness and caring.
The land remains green, rolling and relatively barren of trees. the few homes I see in the countryside are set well back from the road, few because the existing ranches tend to be quite large. The few pieces of land that are not cultivated are thick with low brush, apparently quite thorny, called "chaco" or "impenetrable." We cross the Rio San Jose and I notice it is quite wide, but shallow and muddy. The twin bell towers of the Catedral de San Jose sit high on a hill, dominating the town. We pass a pleasant little red brick home, but with a sod roof and the lawn has been growing! This catches me by surprise as I've seen no other like it. The earth in general has been very black in color. I've always been told that black earth means the land is rich and fertile. Juan says that is true of Uruguay.
Although there are only four major scheduled stops for the bus, the third at Paysandu, people get on and off throughout the route. The conductor carries a little gray cylinder-like machine that dispenses tickets as required and he collects the fares. People wave down the bus along the road if they want on, and simply tell the conductor when they want off. It's a little slow, but seems quite efficient. The bus picks up one, two or three here, and drops off one, two or three there. The bus is a touring style, with the passengers sitting up high, above the driver and conductor level. There is a door and glass partition also that separates the passengers from them. We see the conductor only when he comes back to sell tickets and collect fares.
Our seats have individual controls and overhead lights just like on an airplane. There is a television and VCR in the front of the passenger section, but it is never turned on this trip, despite the fact the trip is a long one to Paysandu and longer to Salto. I've been noticing some odd things on the utility poles and lines along the route and it finally dawns on me what they are, various sizes of bird's nests. I realize this must be due to the lack of very many trees and the bird's adaptation to deforestation. There are small nests of packed mud, medium sized of mud and/or sticks, and real large nests of mostly sticks. I notice a few birds sitting on the wires, but we never get close enough for me to identify them. I can tell they have a lot of yellow on them though. The bus stops in Trinidad, Flores, for a short rest break. The smokers all get off for quick cigarettes, and one can buy soft drinks or candy as desired. Juan has a cigarette while I purchase a pomelo soda. This is a small town and considerably different than Montevideo. The town seems dominated by bicycles.
Back on the bus, Juan and I discuss how far we have come. He pulls out a tiny piece of folded up paper from his wallet that turns out to be a map of Uruguay, and takes pride in showing me where we are and where we are going. I have a good map in my guide book, but choose not to get it out and break the spell. We cross the Rio Negro, here a lake because of the dam. Juan seems proud of the dam and lake as symbols of Uruguayan progress. Later we make a second rest stop at Young.
Shortly past Young, the bus is waved over and the most unique passenger I've seen so far gets on the bus - a Uruguayan "gaucho." He is wearing high black boots, a green and white striped wool sweater, and a short blue jacket with gold lining. There is a gold scarf around his neck and tucked inside his sweater at the neck. His outfit is topped off with a black gaucho sombrero hat, with the leather strap tied tightly under his chin. His skin is very dark, with real dark, deep set, eyes and long black wavy hair one can picture blowing in the wind as he rides. The bus is crowded now, with no seats available, so he must stand. He is standing only a few feet from me as I carefully observe him. His face remains expressionless throughout the ride, and he departs after only about thirty minutes.
6:00 P.M. We arrive at the Paysandu bus terminal after covering 360 kilometers in about five and one half hours. That's only about 65 kilometers, or 42 miles, per hour. A long day on the bus. I say adios to Juan, get my luggage, and start walking to find an inexpensive hotel room. The thirty-nine pounds seem a lot heavier tonight as I struggle to find a room. My guide book is again wrong about prices and everything seems to be four or five times what the book quotes. I wonder if this is inflation since the book's printing, or the presence of Copa America and the accompanying futbol fans. Probably some of both.
I finally take a bed at fifteen U.S. dollars per night in the Hostel de Futbol, the only thing I could find under thirty dollars per night. There are five beds in my room, but I'm the only bed occupied tonight. Everything is old, but the bed and room seems clean enough. There is a central toilet and shower room, and I'm not so sure about the quality of the shower room. My costs are still running entirely too high though, so this will have to do.
7:00 P.M. Relieved of luggage weight, I head out to get oriented and see a little of Paysandu. I'm two rather dark blocks south of the main street, again called Avenida 18 de Julio. I take the main street a mile east to Plaza Constitucion. Most shops appear to be still open, but there are far fewer people in the street here than in B.A. or Montevideo. I soon discover that Toto is not in Kansas anymore. This is a much smaller town than where I've been so far, and English is non-existent. This is brought home to me as I visit the Tourist Office by the Plaza. Often it is a tourist office where someone speaks English, but not in Paysandu. I am able to purchase a ticket for tomorrow's futbol matches, however. It's Estados Unidos vs Chile in the first match, and Argentina vs Bolivia in the second. An Argentina fan hears me speaking a few words of English mixed with Spanish and chooses to speak a few words of English to me. He says I should sit with them because the Argentineans have the most fun. I agree and purchase a ticket in the section with them. They are the "cheap seats," but still $25 U.S. I look forward to sitting with them though.
I am getting hungry and now remember I haven't eaten in quite some time. I find an open grocery store, buying two bananas and a yogurt for my dinner, and then walk to the Plaza, sit on a bench and eat. I then slowly walk the mile back to the hotel for the night. I am excited about the day I've had, but a little nervous at night now. In this smaller, pure Uruguayan town, nothing looks familiar, no McDonald's or Burger King! A different world now. Sitting on my bed, I review a few things in my mind. The weather has been great so far, dry except for early one morning in B.A. Cold at night, but not unbearable. May be in the 30's at dawn, and quite cool until @ nine a.m., but real comfortable the rest of the day.
The natives wear several layers of clothes, often with heavy coats, as this is their winter and quite cold compared to the heat they are used to the rest of the year. Many wear scarves, and walk faster to keep warm. I don't need the heavy jacket I traded for in B.A. during the daylight hours, but don't look out of place wearing it. Finally, I feel real good about my communication skills today and on the entire trip so far. That comforts me as I go to bed. It is almost 11:00 P.M. and I'm now exhausted. This room is large, with a high ceiling designed for summer heat, and it is getting quite cold as I crawl under three woolen blankets.
8:15 A.M. I have been awake a good portion of the night and am very cold. The temperature outside is in the mid-thirties, and not too much higher in this room. This was the coldest night I've spent since tent camping in Fort Dodge, Iowa, one night in March many, many, years ago. There seem to be very few buildings with any kind of central heat in this part of the world. There was no heat in my hotels in B.A. or Montevideo either, but the rooms were smaller and seemed to stay warmer. People depend on wool here, and not on artificial heat to keep warm. I have slept under at least two layers of wool every night, but last night even three wasn't enough. The blankets don't seem as good, plus the high ceiling in this room is probably great in summer, but a problem now. I wonder if that is why I'm the only one in the room?
I was so cold, I thought all night about checking out in the morning, asking for a refund for the second night I'd already paid for. I have reached the point of willingness to pay extra just to be warm. I'm always very concerned about the image of American's as well as money, however. When I checked in, the young man at the desk was so friendly that I feel to leave would hurt his feelings. It is normally not in me to do that, so I swallow my fatigue and cold and put on more clothes, skipping any thoughts of a shower at this temperature. Heading out to seek a hot breakfast, I have to walk through the hostel's common kitchen. This morning I notice their "refrigerator," which is more of a converted ice box and appears to be constructed at least fifty years ago. It has a small motor on top that apparently somehow works to keep the interior cool. Somehow, more than anything else I see or do, it speaks to be about the area of the world I've entered.
9:00 A.M. As I walk up to 18 de Julio, and then east to find a panaderia for breakfast, I notice the sidewalk vendors are not yet set up for the day. It is simply too cold yet, with my breathe fogging as I walk. The shops are just now opening, and I stop in several just to look. Those with permanent glass, masonry fronts, and "real" doors may advertise "air conditioned," but none have heat. Electric space heaters appear to be the "fire" of choice in Paysandu and South America in general. Those stores that only have a roll up metal security front have a space heater or two in their store that the employees are gathered around to keep warm. Watching them, they are clearly cold!
I find a panaderia and select three pastries for breakfast. One is a round twist dough with a cinnamon flavor, chewy but good. Another is long thin and flaky, with a lemon stripe topping. The last is a round cookie-like dough with chocolate topping and a thin layer of cream center. The first two are very good, but the last is too sweet for my taste. I remember that, in general, South Americans prefer most everything sweet.
I need some more Uruguayan pesos, so I stop at a cambio where I obtain about $126,000 Uruguayan for my $20 U.S. It definitely helps to have simple division and multiplication skills when one is traveling! As I walk, I notice the tremendous number of old vehicles here. I've read that new cars are so expensive and highly taxed in Uruguay that the residents keep their cars running forever. I believe this, as I observe several Model T's and antique "tanks" chugging up and down the streets. I find this quite interesting as a philosophy, compared to the often mental and physical "planned obsolescence" of American autos and other products. Material wealth is judged differently here, if it is judged at all!
10:00 A.M. The street vendors are now beginning to set up, though it is still quite cold. Music is now blasting from several store fronts. One song, a rock number, goes, "Down in Buenos Aires, Buenos Aires" over and over. Nice beat. Easy to dance to. I give it a 9.5. Notice a major brand of clothes here for teens and young adults is "Motor Oil." That strikes me as amusing somehow. Wines are cheap here, but soda pop can be expensive. Coca-cola, Pepsi-cola, Sprite, 7-Up and Fanta all can be found here in addition to local brands. An awful lot of people are drinking something green and mashed from various round cups or bowl-like containers? I later learn it is mate, the national drink.
I walk on to the Plaza Constitucion and visit the Catedral de Paysandu, another lovely twin-towered church. From there I head south another mile to the bus terminal to find out the schedule for buses to Colon, Argentina, for later tonight or tomorrow, a Sunday. I discover there is no bus to Colon until Sunday night at five, as most bus companies do not run on Sunday, reminding me again I'm not in Kansas. I walk across the street to an old grave yard, admiring some of the crypts and monuments. Death is a major event here, as is familia. The crypts are the Latin equivalent of pyramids, meant to eternally honor the dead.
Walking back toward town from the cemetery, I see occasional graffiti on walls, always in Spanish except one that says, "Fuck you my love." The graffiti seen is almost always on walls, seldom on statues or monuments. There seems to be a respect for history and monuments here, the exception being in university areas where graffiti is everywhere and heavily political. It seems to be accepted and, in truth, expected from university students and other "intellectuals." I also observe some newer, very nice, single family residences as I walk, taking a few photos of the local architecture.
11:30 A.M. I am back at the main Plaza, sitting on a bench and just enjoying the sun, which is a little warmer now, and observing the people. It is several hours before the first futbol match begins. I speak with four Bolivians, called "Boletas," on the Plaza for a few minutes. They are carrying a Bolivian flag and very enthusiastic about their team. The streets are now filling with vendors and fans, mostly Argentina fans, few U.S. or Bolivians. The vendors offer for sale mostly Argentina items as their fans are primarily the ones in attendance. The Argentina team is historically very good and well followed by their fans, wherever the match is played.
Avenida 18 de Julio is now a parade ground for all, with the sky blue and white colors of Argentina dominating. Most fans wear their team and flag colors, blow horns and cheer. The horns are long plastic ones that sound much like elephants trumpeting. The atmosphere is very festive, much like an Alabama-Tennessee football game in Knoxville. This Copa America is big time stuff! The Argentineans I met last night say their fans have the most fun, and I believe it so far. It is 12:15 P.M., still cool, but bearable now. The sky is bright blue and the sun shining. It is time to walk a little, enjoy the crowds, eat some lunch, and head to the stadium. Viva Estados Unidos! Viva!
1:45 P.M. What a day! I've walked two miles or so, eventually heading towards the stadium. I again observe there are few restrooms to be found, and how this can effect one's dietary habits! Thinking more about the cold, I realize how short the days are. The sun isn't up until @ eight am and is gone by @ five thirty pm. It is cold real quick once the sun sets, and I'm then reminded it is winter here. Today, I'm happy to have my jacket. The vendors are everywhere on my stroll, their stalls laden with sky blue and white Argentina items. They do follow their team!
I join the line to enter the stadium, only to discover the local policia are searching everyone. I have my backpack under my jacket, with my camera and some snack items in it, but with no alcohol or anything that would be controversial in the U.S. One is searched up to three times before entering and I make it through the first two searches with no problem. The third search though is a policia who is very thorough, pats me down completely, finds my backpack, and asks me to remove it for inspection. Going through it, he sees my camera equipment and becomes quite unfriendly, saying, "No camera. No fotographia" over and over. I try to explain I'm a "touristo" and did not know, but that doesn't matter to them. I'm thrown out of the stadium!!!!! They say I can come back, but only without my camera equipment. The first match starts at three and I'm two miles from my hotel on the other end of town! I have no options if I wish to see the game, so I jog back to the hotel wearing my heavy jacket and backpack, leave my backpack at the hotel, and jog the two miles back to the Stadio Municipal. The policia smile at me and let me right in!
It is 2:40 P.M. as I settle into my seat directly behind the north goal, seven rows up. It turns out to be a very good seat as five of the six goals scored today will be on this end. Got lucky. There is a chain link fence around the field, with four strands of barbed wire on the top. Even then the policia have to regularly request the Argentina fans to remove themselves from the barbed wire! Poco loco fans. They are all in the colors of Argentina or the local futbol club they play for and/or support in Argentina. The "cheap" seats behind the goal are the domain of the rowdy blue-collar boys - sort of like the "bleacher bums" in Chicago's Wrigley Field. This is their life! The stadium seats about 30,000 and is full except for the very high corners. About 25,000 appear to be Argentina fans, with about 29,000 men and less than a thousand women here. This is a macho, mano a mano, game and world here in Sud America. The few women here appear to be with an "older" man and are fairly quiet with rare exception.
Before the first match, Estados Unidos vs Chile, the public address announcer introduces the various "politicos" in attendance and there is much whistling, the equal of booing in the world of sport outside the United States. There is also whistling during the U.S. anthem, which disturbs me a little. I tell my amigos, "Es no muy bueno." They say they are sorry and look embarrassed about it. Sitting behind me is Paulo, who speaks pretty good English and wants to practice with me. To the front and side of me are Gaston, Gustavo, Fabio, Daniel and Dario. Each has their own unique personality. Gaston is the friendliest, Gustavo the oldest and leader as he has the car, Daniel the craziest, Fabio the handsomest and ladie's man, and Dario the quietest. All are between twenty and twenty-four years of age.
The favorite activity of the Argentina fans is singing, followed closely by dancing. They have been singing almost non-stop since they arrived. I count five different songs that the entire crowd seems to know in unison. Many are wearing flags as capes, hats, or various scarf neckwear as they sing. They sing "Olay, olay, olay. Olay, ola, Argentina," or "Vamoamos Argentina. Vamoamos Argentina," among others. But by the time the U.S./Chile match begins, they sit fairly quietly and watch, breaking into song only on occasion for now. It is perfect futbol weather at kickoff, @ fifty-five degrees and sun shining. I quickly learn the fans appreciate the game as much as their team. Good plays bring an "olay," and bad plays shouts of "booto" or "burro." "Booto" is apparently for a really bad kick - "burro" for a generally stupid play or performance. The first half brings many "olays" for the U.S. team and several "burros" for the Chilean goalie. The goalie, apparently frustrated, gestures at the fans once, which only results in a louder chorus of whistles and "burros."
As I mentioned, there are very few women at the match, but one young man comes walking down the main aisle with a very special woman, the kind that turns most men's heads anywhere in the world! She is thin, very well-endowed, with long dark black hair. She is wearing a pair of high-heeled black boots, black cord pants she appears to have been poured into, a tight white sweater that emphasized the contours of her body, and a matching black cord jacket, open at the front. Every man's eyes were "bugging" out as she paraded by. Entire sections of men stood and cheered as she walked by, strutting for the "boys" as they clapped and cheered wildly. The young man with her raised his arms over his head, clasping hands like a world champion acknowledging the cheers of the adoring fans! In the U.S. the scene might be considered rude or harassment, but in South America it is simply macho and drool on the chin. This incident, perhaps as much as anything else I see, speaks volumes about the "culture" of South America.
Meanwhile, vendors sell "Panchos" (hot dogs) or "Super Panchos," "Cafe, Cafe," peanuts or popcorn. The smoke around me is a bit of a problem for my sinuses. South Americans smoke heavily and start young. I'm glad there is "no fumar" on the buses. The U.S. wins the first match, two to one, and gets a nice hand for playing well. About five minutes before the U.S. game ends though, the Argentina team comes out to the sidelines to warm up and their fans start going "loco" again. It seems like certain dance steps go with certain songs! One song the fans bounce straight up and down as if each is on their own trampoline, another they stand still but raise their arms and sway, yet another is characterized by side to side steps. All are filled with lots of positive energy!
There are several large flags now making an appearance, about eight feet wide and twenty feet long, with groups of fans waving them over their heads. While dancing, individuals often swing clothing items in circles over their heads. It can be dangerous to nearby spectators if you fail to pay attention! I see only one U.S. flag, as it is evident there are not a lot of U.S. citizens here. I see many sweatshirts with various names of U.S. universities, but they are all worn by Argentinean's!!! I see UCLA, Michigan, Stanford, Connecticut, Iowa, Harvard and Noter (sic) Dame!
As the Argentina/Bolivia game goes on, the crowd gets silent about five minutes before halftime. There is still no score and Argentina is not playing well. Their fans expect them to have "no problemo" with Bolivia and are becoming restless. Bolivia appeared to control the first half, though not able to score. Argentina fans look discouraged at half. Paulo says, "We are morto." Paulo, by the way, appears a quiet, polite, young man - until the singing starts. Then he is one of the wildest of the dancers! The other "cinco amigos" all dance also, with Gaston and Daniel the most enthusiastic.
During halftime, Paulo asked me what I think about the women in Argentina and I reply, "The women in B.A. are the most beautiful I've ever seen!" Paulo and the "cinco Amigos" all smile and agree with echoes of, "Es verdad." Paulo says in English, with much enthusiasm, "Buenos Aires has the most beautiful women in the world." I have to admit, I think he is right.
Midway into the second half, Argentina scores to take a 1-0 lead and the fans go wild, but Bolivia scores with only ten minutes left to make it 1-1 and Argentina fans are looking worried. With about five minutes left, however, Argentina takes a 2-1 lead and hangs on for the win, leaving their fans happy and noisy. As I walk back toward the hotel along 18 de Julio, the street is packed with cars and people, horns blowing and flags waving. I am reminded that New York, Chicago, et al, are merely cities that regularly play several times a year - this is country vs country and they may only meet once every two to six years. Muy importante!
As I pass the Plaza, there is a restaurant on the right where the "cinco amigos" have taken a table and yell and wave for me to join them, which I'm pleased to do. They are all drinking beer and offer some, but I choose to order a mate con leche. We are all talking futbol and life, when they want to trade their Argentina shirts for some of my Tennessee stuff. Trading items after a match is a tradition for futbol players and fans, so we negotiate and I trade UT shirts with Gaston and Daniel. They are very happy with their trades and insist on buying my te. They tell me they live about one hour away in Argentina, a small town in Entre Rios, and will be driving across the international bridge to Colon and on home.
It has gotten quite cold again and I do not wish to spend another sleepless night freezing in my hotel, so I ask if they will take me with them and drop me off in Colon. They readily agree, so we go to Gustavo's car and drive to my hotel. I grab my luggage, tell the desk clerk I've been invited to stay with friends, and off we go. Six of us in a very small car that is probably older than any one of them, but doesn't yet rival me. As we approach the border, we discover the border patrol does not want to bother with paperwork for the large number of Argentina fans attending Copa America, so they are just waving the carloads of fans on through! I do not legally leave Uruguay, or legally enter Argentina! I am a man on the run - without a country - and wonder if this will create a problem for me at some point.
The "cinco amigos" drop me in Colon by a hotel listed in my guide book and I am able to obtain a room. There are no singles available, so I have to take a double and negotiate the price down. The owner started at $25 per night, but I got him to come down to $22 for one night and $40 total for two, if I choose to stay tomorrow. Again, it is over my planned budget, but the room is real clean with a private bath, and I definitely need a shower real bad. I figure I'll probably have to stay tomorrow, as it is Sunday, and there are limited buses available on Sunday. I'll have to check in the morning. It is now 12:15 A.M. and I'm completely exhausted. Bed time.
8:15 A.M. I awake without an alarm this morning. The night was again cold, but the room is a small one and not as cold as Paysandu. The room has two twin beds, a wardrobe, nightstand, small table and chair, so I spread out my belongings a bit last night. I enter the very small bano to the usual out of the wall shower head, and look forward to getting clean again. Unfortunately, the two water controls seem to be for cold and very cold! I choose cold and get my hair washed as best I can. I look like hell in the mirror and am mentally ready to get to Parana and settle in for a while. My experiences have been wonderful though, as I've seen and learned so much. I'm definitely using more "entiendes" than "no entiendes," and I'm quite pleased about that. I'm certainly still pleased to be in South America.
The cold shower has me wide awake now, and I feel pretty decent overall as I dress in some clean clothes. I ask around and discover there is no bus to Parana on Sunday, so inform the hotel owner I will be staying the second night. Actually, my body feels like it could use a day of relative relaxation around Colon. 10:00 A.M. Time to take a leisurely walk and explore Colon. My guide book says little except it is a small pleasant resort town on the Rio Uruguay. I have no map, there is no tourist office open, and I have no Argentina pesos. Again though, I'm off to see the wizard, full of heart and courage, but not so sure about a brain!
I head for the bus terminal first, of course, to simply know where it is and check the posted schedules for the time of the bus to Parana on Monday. It is about a mile and one half, as I now depend on asking directions and making notes since I have no map. This is a bit of a problem as there appear to be no street signs in Colon except for four major streets in the center of the city. I'm usually exceptionally good at directions, but find myself having some trouble determining north, south, east, or west. Being south of the equator, the position of the sun is in the "wrong" place for me now and I get confused on occasion. I have to stop and think about direction, sometimes walking a block or two the wrong way before getting it correct. It seems such a simple thing, but is not when you are living it.
Soon I'm happy to be in Colon, as during the walk to the bus terminal I discover a lovely small town! There are many nice homes with no apparent neighborhood class distinctions. Homes of wealthy, middle class, and poor are often right next to each other. The main streets are concrete, but others are dirt, dust or sand, except one street that is brick. At the bus terminal, I discover the bus direct to Parana leaves at 5:30 A.M. Monday morning. That means early to bed tonight.
As I continue toward the Rio Uruguay, the roads become more and more sandy. Being a Sunday morning, it is very quiet everywhere I walk. A block from the river, I hear birds very active in the surrounding tall trees. They seem to object to my solo presence as a disturbance. This is the first time I've seen and heard birds close up in South America. High up in one tree is a round futbol sized nest of mud and sticks, with a small round hole for an entrance. Entering this nest is a black bird with a brilliant yellowish-green breast. There are several of these birds, all chattering away. I apologize for disturbing their morning as I cross the road to the beach. I have read where Colon is known for its beautiful riverfront beaches, and now I see why. This beach is long and wide, maybe fifty yards wide. This surprises me, as I've never seen a river "beach" that I can recall of any significant size in the U.S. The sand is of medium texture, camel color, leading to an inviting water. I walk to the edge and place my hand in the water. It runs cold but quite clear, as I can see the river bottom out a way from shore. I realize the river is quite wide, as I take a moment to stare at Uruguay across the water.
I walk along the beach for a block or two, noticing only one family engaged in a Sunday morning cookout, and three boys in a canoe who answer, "No frio," when I ask if they are cold. I still have my jacket on and buttoned. I walk back up to the sandy road and think about how hot and dusty this road must be in summer. Actually, it is quite dusty now! Just then a water truck comes by and is spraying the road to hold down the dust, something I see again fifteen minutes later. I'm now at what appears to a center of riverfront activity, and am surprised to see the large, modern looking, "Mediterranco Discoteca." It is open year round based on the beer cans lying on the lawn this morning. The "hot" place to go in Colon! I walk a few minutes longer and find myself at Plaza San Martin, the center of town. I sit on a bench across from the Hotel Holimasu and take some time to write in my journal. Only occasionally has another person appeared this morning. I've remained pretty much alone.
It is now 12:30 P.M. and I've not eaten yet today, so decide to walk some more and find something to eat. The sun is now high in the clear blue sky and it is a bit warmer. I've placed my sweater in my backpack, but thankful I have the B.A. jacket I earlier thought I wouldn't need. As I'm walking, I remember what the "cinco amigos" told me about those little brown containers with the silver metal straws I see the locals drinking from. They are various shapes of hollowed out gourds or wooden cups in which crushed "te" leaves are placed and the national drink, called "mate," is enjoyed. It can be enjoyed hot or cold, but generally hot, especially at this time of year. People carry thermos' of hot water and continually fill their cups, groups often sharing one cup and straw. I have enjoyed mate several times now and really like it, but hadn't realized that was what the natives were also drinking, just in a different format.
1:30 P.M. I've visited a variety of small shops, with several interesting items, but none that have sold food. I'm now resting at a City Park, but still haven't eaten. On this entire trip, I've been walking so much and eating so irregularly. Have I lost any weight? I hope so, but clothes feel pretty much the same. I think about visiting Parque Nacional El Palmar about an hour from Colon, but it would require taking a tour from a local tourist company, and none are open on Sunday at this time of year. To try to go on your own is quite difficult according to my guide book. I could stay another day and try to go tomorrow, but time and money is now of some importance and I want to get to Parana.
2:00 P.M. I am finding little open, so decide to eat in a sit down confiteria for the first time on my trip so far. I had
some difficulty getting my order across to the waiter, but eventually was served chicken and fried sweet potatoes. This is the first non-vegetarian meal I've had in many months. The sweet potatoes catch me by surprise as I didn't know the Spanish word for them, and generally don't care for them. These turned out to be quite good though, and I was hungry enough to eat them all. The chicken though was breaded, very thin, and not very tasty - should stick to my veggies I guess. During my meal, the television overhead is showing a replay of last night's futbol match, and then a basketball highlight film about several South American teams. The basketball film is being shown to music, particularly American James Brown, the "King of Soul," singing (in English) his famous hit, "I Feel Good." It's an old favorite of mine, but I never expected to hear it in South America!
3:00 P.M. I decide to take a walk to the south side of the main plaza, as I'd been north and east this morning. This turns out to be an excellent decision. The town is even more beautiful than I originally thought! Colon is built on a bend in the Rio Uruguay, and I now walk along about two miles of sidewalk, with a lovely riverfront park and recreation facilities below the masonry wall along the sidewalk. I then walk inland for a half mile to a large city park, "Parque Escolar Dr. Hermino J. Quiros," featuring children's playground, tennis courts, swimming pool and, of course, basketball and futbol facilities. I see no softball or baseball diamonds. There are many families in the park and lots of small children, maybe 100 people, mostly in the playground area.
Along the riverfront and near the park area appears to be the "prime" areas of town as the homes are generally newer and larger, with some very nice architecture and quite a bit of attractive wood trim. I have discovered that only the homes of the wealthy feature wood trim in this area of the world. There are many people strolling along the way, or sitting on the wall, as I walk the entire length down and back. The riverfront park below is featured by a large campground with picnic tables and grills, and a private club toward the south end. There is a wide beach and lots of trees everywhere. I see cabanas for rental by tourists, and a children's carnival area, apparently open only in summer. Actually, much of the area appeared closed for the season. There is one high rise hotel and one tourist company, "Ita i Cora Adventura," offering rides over the river in a small plane, or motorized raft rides to hidden places on the river. That has appeal to me, but finances prevent my serious consideration.
As I walk both ways along the wall, I again notice the number of people drinking mate, most carrying a thermos of hot water that they keep adding to their cup of te leaves. The silver straw actually looks spoon-like, but serves as a kind of "filter" and not as a spoon. I see some individuals add lemon slices to their te. It is clear to me now why mate is called the national drink of South America, it is everywhere! And drunk by all ages! Teenagers are sitting in groups at regular intervals along the wall or strolling in couples. The riverfront seems to be the place for young lovers in Colon. Many teens are drinking mate, and they will pass the cup among them, each taking small sips. One couple, both @ age seventeen, stroll along with arms around each other. His hand keeps slipping below her waist and she keeps moving it back up! Finally, she does the same to him and he just laughs. Young love seems to vary little throughout the western world.
4:15 P.M. I'm now back near the north end of the wall, where there is a small futbol field below by the riverfront. It is less than half regulation size and ten boys, all about thirteen to fifteen years old, are playing five to a side. The field is slanted downwards toward the river on one side, the field itself parallel to the river. This makes for some difficulty. When the ball heads out of bounds on the river side, it quickly rolls toward the water and the boys rush to save it. The few times the ball gets wet, the boys simply ignore it and the game goes on. I watch them for about twenty minutes, astonished at the skill in their feet! I would have fallen many times by now. One boy, Pablo I hear him called, is clearly the best but he also appears the biggest and possibly the oldest. Pablo is wearing a gray tee shirt that reads, "Panaderia Lopez" in blue on the front, suggesting a sponsor of a local team. I wonder if one of these boys will someday fulfill a dream of playing in Copa America?
It is now only three blocks up the hill to San Martin Plaza, and I take a seat for a few minutes only two benches away from where I sat this morning. I'm at the corner of 12 de Abril & Belgrano and it is 4:15 P.M. I'm a bit tired so decide to rest for a few minutes. I notice the plaza has about a dozen ten to twelve year olds sitting, talking and roller blading. I've determined the town's unwritten social rules imply the north beaches belong to poorer local families, the south beaches to tourists and wealthier families, the east riverfront to teens, and the Plaza to the pre-teens. Those 13 and 14 years old, seem to be in transition, and I notice several groups wander back and forth from the river wall to the plaza to the river wall. It is very interesting to observe. With no tourists around, the locals are not difficult to track on this sunny winter Sunday afternoon. Sitting there, Colon seems a nice place to live, and a very nice place to grow up.
5:15 P.M. It's time for me to head the two miles back to my hotel, as I'm tired and have to be up early tomorrow to catch my bus to Parana. Walking back, I stop for a cup of hot mate con leche, drinking it slowly at a sidewalk table while savoring the smooth flavor of this delightful and relaxing green te. It is just past 6:00 P.M. as I arrive back at the hotel, and I ask the owner if I could possibly have a small space heater for the night as it was "muy frio" last night. He informs me a heater costs five dollars per night, so I tell him no, I'll just have to be cold! As I enter my room, the marble floor is real cold, so I leave my door open to hopefully let in some heat from the hall, which is warmer.
The hotel seems to be fairly empty tonight as I lie there reading when at 6:45 P.M. the owner comes walking in with a lighted gas space heater and sets it down near the foot of my bed. I am not quite clear what he is saying, but I think he feels sorry for me and is offering it to me for free - at least I hope so! He leaves it there for now anyway. I look up what I thought he said in my Spanish dictionary and it says something about a "bushy topped tree," so I'm certain that wasn't it! I don't know how safe this heater is, but it is definitely giving off heat so I'm just enjoying it as I close the door a minute to change for bed. The owner now comes back and knocks on the door, warning me to keep the door open because of the heater. Meanwhile, I'd just figured that out as the room is filling with smoke, and my eyes were now burning and watering! It finally dawns on me that this heater is a temporary solution to only warm up the room for the night.
8:00 P.M. The smoke is clearing now as the owner walks back in, feels the air with his hand, and says to me, "Un mas hora." I reply, "Es esta bien," but he says, "No. Un mas hora," and leaves again. I lie in bed reading and he comes back at 9:00 P.M. and removes the heater to my words of "mil gracias." Lights out.
4:00 A.M. My alarm goes off and I get out of bed immediately as I have a bus to catch. I slept quite well and was really warm for the first time so far on this adventure. The room is still cool though once I'm up, so I dress quickly, finish packing, and am out the door by 4:20 A.M. for the mile plus walk to the bus terminal. As I step outside, it is quite cold and very foggy. I can only see as far as two or three buildings in front of me. I only see one policia auto on the streets on my walk. I cannot see anything down the side streets due to the fog, and I'm now concerned about finding the small bus terminal. I begin navigating by sound, hoping to hear a bus engine. I finally hear one somewhere in the fog and try to work my way towards it. I am one block away, when I spot an outline of a bus in the fog on my left and a few of the yellow lights on the roof of the terminal, and head that way.
4:50 A.M. The bus terminal is empty as I enter except for one local young woman lying on a bench, and two young women with many suitcases that I immediately suspect are Americans. I greet them only to find out that they are not Americans, but both from Holland and fluent in English. They had landed At B.A. yesterday afternoon and immediately caught an overnight bus to Colon. They are now waiting for the first bus to Paysandu to go see the Copa America tournament. They are two sisters, a blonde and a brunette. The brunette tells me she is the girlfriend of American futbol player Ernie Stewart, and even he thinks she is crazy to come this far. They tell me they are staying for as long as the U.S. remains in contention in the tournament. That could be all summer!
The blonde offers me a bit of candy and I decline but she insists, "Try one. It is real Dutch candy." I try one and it tastes like some type of licorice drop. It would probably be good later in the day, but I'm not ready for candy at this hour of the morning. They want to know about Paysandu, so we talk about Paysandu, the Argentina fans, and Copa America in general. I try to answer a few of their questions about Paysandu. No one gives or asks names. We are all tired - strangers passing in the night.
I'm getting concerned about my bus, "Empressa San Jose," to Parana. The sign in their ticket booth says the bus leaves at 5:30 A.M. but the booth doesn't open until 7:00 A.M.? It is now 5:25 A.M. A woman working in a different company ticket booth senses my confusion and says, "Senor?" I explain my problem and she says it is no problem and sells me a ticket to Parana, informing me the bus will be outside shortly. It will be a "buesito," or mini-bus. Sure enough, a few minutes after 5:30 A.M. it comes rolling up to the terminal, the few other passengers and I load our bags in the back, and we are off.
The "buesito" seats only twenty-four compared to the forty-seven of a full-size bus. At first this does not seem important, it is dark and foggy, nothing can be seen, so I just want to sleep for now. Argentina's roads are bumpy though, and I soon learn the buesito is lighter than a regular bus and thus doesn't ride as smooth. We bounce around regularly, but usually not too high! I only find air between me and my seat twice during the trip. I sleep through the bumps as best I can though. By the time I notice the sun is up, shortly after 8:00 A.M., I see a sign informing me it is only sixty kilometers to Parana. The Province of Entre Rios, "between the rivers," is what one might expect: flat, broad, dark and fertile land. The Argentineans also refer to this area as Mesopotamia, the cradle of their own civilization.
It is hot and relatively dry here though in summer, as one can tell looking at the existing trees. They are short and broad, protecting their own roots from the burning sun - much as one observes in the American Southwest. I notice my face is dry this morning. I am slightly red from the afternoon in Colon without wearing my hat, even though the weather was mostly cool. My first experience with the power of the tropical sun on this trip. 9:00 A.M. We pull into the Parana Bus Terminal, a surprisingly decrepit, run down, entirely outdoor facility. It is the first really dilapidated bus terminal I've seen so far. Like all the others though, it is very busy, plus it is located at a major traffic intersection. I've been observing faces on the streets coming into the city, remembering my great-grandfather came to America, but his brother went to Argentina. They were Russo or Volga Germans, and this is a Volga German area. My mother's side, family name of Schwindt. It would be interesting to run across a long lost cousin!
First order of business is a hotel again and I check out several near the bus terminal with no luck, too high priced or too decrepit. I decide to start walking the mile and a half to the center of the city, hoping to find something acceptable along the way. My luggage seems heavier every day and, unfortunately, becomes heavier when I mess up on directions again and walk about six blocks the wrong way before I get it right. This would never bother me when I'm just sightseeing, but is irritating when one is carrying a lot of luggage. Up so early today, I'm very tired, very hungry, and not particularly liking Parana upon first impression. The streets are very crowded and it is a good sized city. The guide book I'd read said the population was 22,000, but somebody left out a zero. It's 220,000! Cars are packing the streets, no hotel is in sight, and I'm becoming very discouraged.
10:00 A.M. I'm saved! An oasis appears - a panaderia! Thank you, Lord - I really need the sugar! I select three different pieces of mouth-watering pastry and a Sprite, sit on a bench outside to eat it all, and am rejuvenated. Breakfast has never tasted better! I walk only another three blocks and see a sign over a doorway, "American English Institute." I am now excited as I enter to speak with the woman at the desk. She is the Vice Directora, Alicia Beatriz Gambelin, also the sister of the Directora and owner. We enjoy thirty minutes of interesting conversation as I discover she has studied in England and in America (Philadelphia) on a Fulbright Grant. She tells me I'm welcome to observe their English classes every night this week starting tomorrow night when they are having a joint Independence Day party for the U.S. 4 July and Argentina 9 July, their Independence Day. I readily accept and my spirits are lifted. Senora Gambelin also tells me she formerly had a student named Schwindt, and will check if anyone has a current address for him. It always amazes me how things can happen in such strange ways. I'm now liking Parana!
10:45 A.M. I still need to find a hotel, but now discover I'm only two blocks from the main plaza of the city. Over my years of international travel, I've usually had some luck finding decent inexpensive hotels within a several block radius of a city’s central plaza. How inexpensive, of course, is a relative thing, and I find that Parana is not cheap. This is not a tourist town, thus there are fewer hotels and competition. This evidently keeps prices up and, after several tries, finally have to settle for a room at $25 U.S. per night. I couldn't even talk the owner into a discount for multiple nights. This is more than I paid in B.A. and over budget. I'm already sensing this adventure is going to be shorter than my original plans.
12:10 P.M. Though an old hotel, my room is quite large, clean and comfortable, with a privado bano; plus I'm only one block off the main plaza. The location is a little noisy, but convenient. I've unpacked, settled in, washed up, put on some sun block and my UT cap, and am ready to go see Parana. The Plaza Primero de Mayo is absolutely fantastic and the exterior of the Catedral is the most beautiful I've seen so far! First though, I need to find a cambio and rid myself of my remaining Uruguayan pesos and obtain some Argentina pesos. I quickly find out Parana operates much in the Latin tradition of hours, including the banks. Everything closes at noon. Retail shops will reopen about three or four, but banks and government offices are done for the day. B.A. didn't operate like that, but I've discovered the rest of Argentina still does.
Calle San Martin, next to the Plaza is a peatonal for about six blocks and as I walk down it I discover the shops are closing and workers are heading home for lunch and a siesta! I walk on down to the end of the peatonal to Plaza Alvear, where I sit on a bench for several minutes. There is a fountain a short distance in front of me. Walking as much as I do, it is now seldom that I pass a plaza without enjoying a short rest on a shady bench, often near a fountain. I've left my jacket at the hotel and have just removed my sweater. For the first time this trip, I can really feel the heat of the tropical sun. My pants also feel looser today and I hope I've lost some weight.
2:00 P.M. There is a church off one corner of Plaza Alvear, the 1836 Iglesia San Miguel, and I decide to start my afternoon tour there. Then I head toward Parque Urquiza and the Rio Parana, stopping at many places along the way including an elementary school, several lovely plazas, and a small ice cream shop. The school I visit is Escuela Superior #1 del Centenario, located in a large historic building. All the public schools I've visited, no matter what the grade level, are quite large in size, but appear to be very poor compared to U.S. schools in terms of physical upkeep, furnishings, and educational materials in general. Del Centenario is no different, except they do have a very nice park-like playground.
In these terms, their best public schools aren't significantly different than our worse. It is a very sad situation to observe, as the children tend to be very well-behaved and the people seem to care about their education. Most of the schools require the children to wear white smocks over their clothes as an attempt to disguise class distinctions, but in reality the smocks do little to hide one's clothes. In any case, the wealthy generally send their children to private schools, and vote against any funding for the public schools.
When I reach the bluff encompassing part of Parque Urquiza and overlooking the Rio Parana, I am overwhelmed by the sheer size of the river and scenic beauty of the area. One sees the slogan "Viva el Rio en Parana" on shirts and brochures throughout the city, and standing here on the bluff it is easy to understand why. The location of the city is simply spectacular! It is about 100 steps down from the bluff to the riverfront and Avenida de Laurencia, but I've got to go for it, though I know it will be a killer hike coming back up.
As I walk along the riverfront I'm impressed by the wide sand beaches and the relative cleanliness of the area. I again notice many young people drinking mate. It is everywhere. I walk about a mile along the riverfront before accepting the challenge and hiking back up the hill. The pleasant surprises continue as halfway up the hill I discover a small amphitheater built into the hillside, and then a large high-rise, Hotel Mayorazgo, with a casino at the top. Most of the places I've been have had a casino, but only one! Evidently gambling is allowed in Argentina, but only in limited selected locations.
Walking along Blvd. Mitre at the top of the bluff, the housing is quite attractive and colorful. As I continue toward the south side of town, however, the income level of the residents appears to drop off considerably. Here I stop at an escuela secondaria, where the boys are playing futbol on a field devoid of a single blade of grass. The clothes of these teens are well worn and the school is surrounded by much poorer housing, particularly to the south. Everything appears in bad need of at least a coat of paint, and one suspects many other necessities are needed even more. I have gone far enough for today, and decide to head back toward the city center. I pass another futbol field, this one with grass, and notice it is again in use. I have not observed an unused futbol field anywhere in South America! Do they play even in the middle of the night?
There is also more graffiti on the walls in Parana then in other places I've been so far. This is more of a blue collar, working class town, and I wonder if there is a connection? All the graffiti is in Spanish except two words that scream in large letters, "FREE ROCK." A disgruntled music fan? 5:30 P.M. I'm back at the Plaza Primero de Mayo, so decide to go inside the Iglesia Catedral, only to be disappointed by the interior. It dominates the Plaza and is the most beautiful catedral I've seen from the exterior, but is dark, cold, and plain inside. Very unusual for a central catedral.
Only a few yards away is the entrance to Parana Normal School, one of the predominant teacher training institutes in Argentina, and the first of its kind in the country. I ask, and am shown to the office of the Directora, Senora Estela del C. Gambelin de Gomez, who is also the Directora and owner of the American English Institute which I stopped at earlier. We enjoy a cup of mate as I explain to her about my doctoral program and what I'm doing in Parana. She tells me about Parana Normal School. They are public and have an elementary school in the morning, a secondary school in the afternoon, and then teacher training college level classes at night, plus various other college level classes throughout the day. The building is in use from seven am to eleven pm daily. They train only teachers, and under government rules cannot be called a university. Their training program for teachers is similar to that of the U.S., with four years of study and a year of teaching internship. The students generally serve their internships right there with the classes that are held throughout the day.
PNS is recognized as one of the best in the country, but still suffers from severe financial problems. The school is 123 years old, dedicated 16 August 1871, and a National Historical Building. It is quite large, beautiful architecturally, with two large inner courtyards, but walking through the building, the financial problems are readily confirmed. A typical classroom has forty to fifty very old desks, high ceilings with two fans and two bare light bulbs overhead. There is no central heat or air of any kind, other than the overhead fans! The building is cold, dark and, some would say, depressing.
6:00 P.M. The Directora informs me a class for students studying to be English teachers is beginning now, and she has an assistant show me to the appropriate classroom. The teacher, Maria Espousa, has me introduce myself and I take a seat in the back of the room to observe. It is a class in History of England, taught entirely in English. The Directora had informed me they are mostly teaching in American English now, for business reasons, as compared to the British English they formally taught. Students majoring in English have their entire college curriculum in English except for three classes, two in pedagogy and one in educational psychology. I'm intrigued by this "immersion" style of education.
The class I'm sitting in has twenty-one students, but all are female but one! They are in their second year of training and all around nineteen years old. They are very attentive and well-behaved. Today's topic is the conflict between the monarchy and parliament in seventeenth century England. The students are all wearing sweaters and many are wearing coats, as the room is quite cold. I count forty-six desks, thus the room is @ half full. There is an old blackboard at the front which the teacher uses regularly, and three high windows on the outside courtyard wall. The desks are at least forty plus years old, iron and wood bolted to one by four slats, two or three to a set. They are covered with writing or carving and many have cracks in them. It would be difficult to find equipment this old in American schools, if it exists at all.
The students, however, are dressed much like American students, except warmer clothing indoors. I choose to concentrate on watching one young woman, Silvina, who happened to smile at me when I entered and is sitting where I can observe her. She is tall, @ 5'11", with a thin built, and dark brown shoulder length hair, cut the same all the way around, framing her tan complexion and very dark brown eyes. She wears a dark blue V-neck sweater over a light blue turtleneck sweater, blue jeans, thick white socks, and brown two-stringed loafers with thick rubber soles, plus a large silver ring on her right hand. She has a blue denim lined jacket lying next to her. She continually pulls her sweater arms over her hands and "hugs" herself as people do when they are cold. A textbook and a notebook are open on her desk and she appears attentive, taking regular notes. 6:40 P.M. Silvina asks a question about Jamestown, Virginia, and the Mayflower. It is the first time she has spoken.
At 6:45 P.M., the teacher announces a break and, surprisingly, Silvina comes back to speak with me. She tells me she is very interested in English, she has been to England, and would love to come to the U.S. She is a very enthusiastic and interesting young woman. She asks me several questions about teacher education in the U.S., my program, and what I'm doing in Parana. She seems quite excited about my travels and says one of her goals is to travel all over the world! The teacher, Maria, comes back to join our conversation, and asks many of the same questions. They both want to know what I think of their country, and I tell them how impressed I am with what I've seen so far. Argentina is very beautiful. I comment to Maria about my admiration for her work under such difficult working conditions in terms of lacking modern facilities. She frowns and replies, "Yes. It is pitiful. No light. Desks that are from the forties and fifties. Ridiculous." Another student comes back to join us and offers me a Hall's cough drop, which I gladly take. Before we can speak more, however, Maria announces they must get started again. The class only meets on Monday night and this is the last week before exams and their one month winter break. That disappoints me, as I would enjoy joining them for a while.
7:15 P.M. Maria begins to lecture again, and just like in an American university, several students come back a few minutes late from their break. During the break I'd asked Silvina why there weren't more men in the class, and she responded that almost all teachers in Argentina are women, that teaching is not considered a very good job for men. She asks me about the gender breakdown in the U.S. and I tell her about the difference in elementary, secondary, and university classrooms. She finds that quite interesting. Silvina has now put her jacket on as the temperature continues to drop. It is quite dark outside, and not that light in here with only two bare bulbs in a large room.
I'm impressed by Maria's knowledge. She knows her history, lecturing without notes or any hesitation. I'm very impressed with her poise overall. Her lecture is more date oriented than one probably would be in the U.S. I believe, but she is quite smooth, using voice tone and hands well. Several students have huddled together now, sharing desks, to keep warm. Maria is also dressed quite warmly in sweater over sweater, wool scarf, and coat. A few students have left early, for reasons I'm unaware of. The conditions seem so difficult for both teaching and learning.
7:30 P.M. Silvina comments on the teacher's statement about individuals being jailed in England for objecting to certain government policies. Maria and her become involved in a back and forth discussion, all in a questioning and attempting to understand tone and manner.
7:45 P.M. The lecture is still in progress, but Silvina has to leave for some reason, so she comes back and asks me if we can have te sometime and would I call her. She writes down her name and phone number and says to please call. I suggest she name a time now and I'll agree to meet her. We agree to meet at eleven am tomorrow by the statue in the center of Plaza Primero de Mayo. Silvina then grabs her backpack and heads out the door. The teacher just continues lecturing. I am amazed the students stay attentive under such uncomfortable decisions, but then I can't be sure how many are still paying close attention, although most still have their notebooks out and write something in them occasionally. 7:55 P.M. Maria dismisses the class, and they are definitely ready to go.
As we walk out, Maria tells me that the teachers here in Parana have not been paid since May, and in some parts of Argentina they haven't been paid since February! She says Argentina is a very rich country in terms of resources, but that wealth is concentrated in only a few hands. The government system is self-serving and all crooks in the eyes of the people. There are problems with the bright, educated, young people leaving the country due to the poor economy and lack of opportunity. She tells me once some American boys came down here on an exchange and were very cold, asking when do they turn on the central heat? The other students all laughed and said, "It's on!" I again complement Maria on doing such good work under difficult conditions, and thank her for allowing me to visit before we part company. I again feel bad their semester is ending.
9:15 P.M. I am not ready to return to a cool and lonely hotel room yet, plus I haven't eaten any dinner, so I wander around awhile near the plaza area. I stop at GAIA Cafeteria for te con leche completo, te served with a basket of tasty little breads, cookies, and jam. It is very good and a cheap dinner! I am quite concerned about expenses and need to make do as best I can. I must admit, it would be wonderful to stay in a fancy hotel and dine in a five star restaurant just once a week or so! Dream on, Roberto! Something else I've noticed every night so far in South America, but haven't commented about, is the habit of vehicles to travel at night with no headlights on! Only parking type lights or other small lights of some kind. Most drivers flick on their headlights only when approaching corners or if they think they see something in the road. Very different to an American, and one must watch closely when crossing a street at night.
I've asked several people if they know anything about softball activities in Parana, but no one seems to know anything. I'll try more tomorrow, then decide how long to stay here, or where to move on to. I'm taking the philosophy of one day at a time on this adventure, and actually enjoying that flexibility. 10:35 P.M. I'm back at my hotel, quite tired now, and ready for some sleep. There is quite a lot of street noise outside that bothers me at first, but then remember I've a pair of earplugs received from American Airlines in the little kit of "personals" they give out on the plane. These work wonderfully and I don't hear a thing all night. I must remember not to use them if I need to rise early and hear the alarm go off!
9:30 A.M. I wake up quite late, but feeling very well rested. My bed has turned out to be the most comfortable one I've had so far, though the five foot long pillow on it is certainly different! There is only one wool blanket, but the night was not so cold and I was warm enough. It is definitely warmer here in Parana than the other places I've been, but I'm not sure if that is Parana, or just a change in the weather. Materials I've read show that Parana weather is much the same as the other locations I've been.
Before showering, I decide to shave for the first time since I've arrived. The bathroom is relatively large and clean, and the water is nice and warm. I enjoy the longest shower I've had since my arrival in South America and come out of the shower feeling great. I spread my clothes all over the bed to determine what needs to be thrown in the laundry bag and what is still acceptable to wear, discovering not much is still clean. I select the cleanest jeans I have, a clean UT sweatshirt, and head out to meet a clear, sunny, magnificent day. I carry my jacket as weather is warm enough without it this morning.
I still need to exchange some money for Argentina pesos, so try stopping at two banks, only to find no bank in Parana will exchange my Uruguayan pesos. I have over $108,000 Uruguayan in my wallet and no one wants it! Fortunately, that's only about $16.50 U.S. With the inflation in Uruguay, it may be worth "nada" by the time I find someplace that will take it. That's what I get for "sneaking" out of Uruguay in the middle of the night!
11:00 A.M. I'm sitting on a bench in Plaza Primero de Mayo waiting for Silvina. She arrives, smiling, just a few minutes late and we greet by kissing cheeks in the way of Argentina. She is in jeans and a V-necked gray sweater, buttoned up the front, over a crew neck lighter gray sweater. Her dark hair is pinned back this morning and she wears no makeup. She carries a binder notebook. I ask her suggestion for te and she leads me to "Confiteria Floyd," just off one corner of the plaza. She says the "Plaza Bar" is very famous, but will be too crowded at this time. We will be able to talk better at Floyd. We are fortunate to get a small window table and she orders te negro, while I order my usual te con leche. Our waiter is a small dark man with a large bushy mustache and dark wavy hair. He is dressed formally in a white shirt, maroon bow tie and maroon vest. He is quiet, polite and efficient.
11:15 A.M. We sip te and talk at length. Silvina tells me about her life in Parana. Her father is an accountant, mother an office worker, and only brother, two years younger, is lazy and lacking in ambition. She also has a fat and lazy old white cat named Blanco. She tells me her brother has currently dropped out of school due to bad grades, and claims he wants to be a pilot or a race car driver. Her father and brother speak no English, but her mother speaks a little. Her father used to work for the government, but was so dissatisfied with their stealing and the inability to do anything about it he quit and went into business on his own with a partner. Sort of an independent accountant with his own clients. Silvina says their family is not among the wealthy, but that they live well enough in her eyes.
Silvina studied one month in England on an academic scholarship she won and, while there, also visited an uncle living in Paris. She loves Paris, but then admits she loves everywhere she has been! She wants to see the world. She currently speaks fluent Spanish, English, Portuguese, fair French, and is practicing Japanese. Silvina laughs as she says she wants to learn all the languages and communicate with all the peoples of the world! I tell her she is off to a good start! I ask her more about her own goals. She tells me she was originally studying Chemistry and Biology, planning to be a medical doctor, but after traveling to England and using her English, discovered she loves languages so much she now wants to teach English. She has been studying English since the age of nine.
I ask her concerns about making a living in the Argentina economy and she admits that is a problem. She comments about the teachers often not being paid, as is happening right now, but that those in the government still get paid, that they are all crooks. Silvina says she would never work for the government, but wishes to do private tutoring and work as a translator and an airline flight attendant so she can see the world! After graduation from PNS, she plans to attend a short airline school in B.A. and then go to work for an airline. She says that is "her dream." I ask her about living elsewhere if she works for an airline, but she thinks she will stay in Argentina as home. She has had the same boyfriend for two years but is now concerned because he has dropped out of school with bad grades and is also lazy, spending most of his time watching television. She admits her plans may change for the future.
She tells me PNS is a free, government supported school and that is a problem. She feels because students don't have to pay, they will go to school rather than go to work, thus many of the students in school are lazy, don't study, and are just there to avoid working. She would like to see students pay some part of their education and it not be free, paying just enough to keep out those who really don't want to be there but are just avoiding work. I ask her how these students get admitted? She tells me there is not enough room for everyone, so they hold a "lottery" for the places, with no credit for how well you did in high school. However, she claims one does get "credit" for who their parents or family are, and those with connections always get in. She tells me she spent her last two years of high school at PNS, after the previous three years at a public provincial school. The provincial schools are run by the governments of the provinces, in this case Entre Rios. Parana is a national sponsored school and considered to be the best in the province.
I ask her about the previous school she attended and Silvina tells me it was okay but they had to wear a white smock school uniform and she hated that. She tells me that after she came back from Paris and experiencing how the rest of the world lived, she rebelled and protested against the wearing of the smocks. "I could not understand why we had to wear a smock. It is stupid." She said she got in trouble at school for protesting and had to back off. I told her I thought the smock concept was an interesting one, supposedly allowing students, rich or poor, to look more or less similar. Silvina says that it doesn't matter, everyone knows who is who, who is rich or poor, where you live, and who your parents are. I wonder if this is really much different than the U.S.?
Despite being a national school and a national historical building, the school is not being cared for and the desks and equipment are horrible. "The fucking government does not care." She quickly apologizes, saying that is the only English swear word she knows. She goes on, saying the government steals all the money and does not put it into education. The government does not consider education an investment in the future. I ask about student loans and she tells me no such things exist as schools are free except for private schools, which only the wealthy attend. Silvina says she loves Argentina but is very bitter about the government, as most young people are. The only reason there is no revolution is because the people have given up on trying to change anything. They've come to accept the government as that's just the way it is.
I mention to Silvina how I've noticed so many young people seem to smoke in Argentina, and wondered why that is. She says that many start smoking around age thirteen, and it is very common here. Even in school, they cannot smoke during class, but can smoke in the halls during breaks at any age. There are no age rules. Alcohol is not allowed in the schools but te is very plentiful and many students drink it throughout the day. Mate is considered to be very relaxing, so much that if someone seems sleepy, people will say they have been drinking too much mate! She laughs softly at her own joke.
She asks me about the educational system and training of teachers in the U.S. and Tennessee, so I explain our undergraduate system, our graduate schools, and financial aid programs to her. I also explain how our people and our government generally consider education as an investment in the future of the individual and the country, and that teachers working in a public school not being paid would simply be inconceivable in our way of thinking. She also asks about my own educational background and goals, so I tell her about my own teacher training during my undergraduate days, explain my MS in College Student Personnel, and explain what I'm working on now. Silvina seems very impressed with our American educational system.
Our conversation now shifts to my trip and what it is I'm doing, so I tell her about my journal and explain "thick" description. This is all a new concept to her, and she listens intently. She asks me about some of my impressions, and I tell her about attending the futbol match in Paysandu and the "cinco amigos." She asks I read what I wrote about it to help her understand thick description, and I agree. She seems to enjoy my words, laughs a lot, and corrects me on a few words or traditions I wasn't sure of. She says she hates futbol, it is a boy's game and no place for women. "Women don't go." She would rather read history, culture, and study languages while listening to classical music.
She now asks me about my impressions of different places I've traveled throughout the world, so I talk a little about France, Italy, and particularly New Zealand and Australia. We also discuss the way te, or tea, is drunk in England, New Zealand and Argentina. I also tell her about my daughter's life and how she is much like my daughter, with her love of languages and travel. I show her photos of my son and daughter, with daughter in her airline flight attendant uniform. Silvina likes that! 12:40 P.M. She has to go catch a bus for a tutoring appointment, so we agree to exchanging addresses. She says we cannot meet again this week as she has exams every day for the next week and has much studying to do. She says I should write her from the U.S., sending some of what I write about my adventure.
I give her a UT sweatshirt as a parting gift which brings a big smile. She says, "But I have nothing to give you." I tell her, "You have given me wonderful company and conversation." I pay the check and we walk the two blocks to her bus stop, making small talk about Parana and the weather. Her bus comes and it's a quick "Ciao," a kiss on the cheek, and she is gone. I walk a block back to the Plaza, sit on a bench in the shade, and think and write about our conversation. The sun is warm today and the bench is a comfortable one.
2:00 P.M. I have been thinking and writing for quite some time, interrupted only by an occasional glance up to admire another beautiful Argentinean lady walking through the Plaza. They all wear such short skirts here!!! One of the most pleasant surprises of the trip! Even the female policia are pretty here, and they are wearing guns! The sun is now high in the sky and it is getting quite warm. Guess I'll put on some sun block, get something to eat, and go see more of Parana, but first I want to walk through PNS again and take some photos.
After shooting several photos, I notice a styrofoam board 4' x 8' set upon an easel outside the Directora's office. Half of it is a job listing board for teaching jobs throughout the province. Twenty-four schools list various openings, twenty-one with between two and six openings, two with only one opening shown, and one school with ten openings listed! The available positions are handwritten on 4" x 6" cards, one card per school. The school with ten openings has theirs listed on an 8" by 10" sheet of paper. The other half of this board is dedicated to various announcements, including one funeral notice.
Several feet to the right are two blackboards, both also 4' x 8', with announcements written on them in chalk. They appear to be concerning general school business.
2:45 P.M. I have seen enough and leave PNS, heading east a few blocks on Avenida Urquiza to Plaza Alberti, where there is a monument to a fireman who saved a child. It is actually hot now! I've stripped down to a tee shirt for the first time this trip and am still warm. I have to remind myself it is the middle of winter. Crazy weather changes so far this trip. Across the street from the plaza is a confiteria, "Spaghetti." Italian food sounds good to me, so I enter and take a seat about 3:00 P.M. From a large menu, I decide on "gnocchis," which I've heard is an inexpensive and filling pasta dish eaten often by the poor. I'm way over budget so far, so that sounds good to me. Within minutes, the waiter brings a good-sized basket of bread and crackers with a small bowl of grated cheese on the side. I'm enjoying that when he brings a large round soup bowl of gnocchis covered with red sauce. I sprinkle some cheese over the top and dig right in. I have never had gnocchis before, but I'm delighted! I'm not sure if they are that good, I'm just so hungry, or both; but I wipe out the bowl. Mopping up the last of the sauce with their excellent Italian bread, I am the most stuffed I've been on the entire trip. I'll need no dinner tonight, but probably have some te of course.
Music is playing as I eat, including Joe Cocker singing his long version of, "I'll Get By With a Little Help From My Friends." It is one of my favorite songs, and all in all a very pleasant lunch. 3:45 P.M. I walk back toward the main plaza, stuffed and ready for a siesta. As I enter the Plaza Primero de Mayo, I notice the post office on my left and realize it is the building I saw outlined in lights, looking very beautiful, last night. Government buildings here remain quite nice, while the schools get little. It has to be very frustrating for educational professionals. I stop at the Tourist Office across from the Plaza and pick up some general information about the Parana area. A flyer announces Diego Maradona is playing futbol here Sunday with his club team from B.A. He was once considered to be the best player in the world, but was been banned from the Argentina National Team because of drug use. He is too old to be playing now but I still might go see him if I'm in the area on Sunday.
I see a poster of local birds on the wall and recognize several of the "yellow" ones I've seen earlier. Tordo Amarillo is yellow breasted with a yellow head. Cabecita Negra is yellow breasted with a black head. I've been fortunate enough to see them both several times. I also ask about softball, but the Tourist Office knows nothing about it except where the stadium is located. I am beginning to think they take a winter break also, and I may have carried my glove thousands of miles for nada! Oh well. As I relax on a bench, I feel I'm seeing and learning so much, no matter what happens. If the money runs out early and I have to head home, so be it.
4:40 P.M. I stop off at my hotel room for a few minutes to get rid of some of the extra clothing I now have in my backpack before proceeding several blocks to a small artisans mercado that proves to be of little interest, and then stroll around the peatonal for awhile. One stop is a music store as I search for some traditional music of this area. The sales woman is extremely helpful, letting me listen to several examples, and I finally purchase two. One is traditional music of Entre Rios, and the other traditional music of the Volga Germans of Parana, my distant relatives. I look forward to listening to them in full when I return to the U.S. It has been two days since I've had any ice cream, so the urge is great. I get two lovely scoops of wonderful ice cream, one of white chocolate and the other of a strawberry cream. Magnifico! A fresh bottle of water for my thirst, and I'm in good shape for the day as I stop back at my hotel for a short rest.
7:45 P.M. It is time to head for the 4 and 9 de Julio party at the American English Institute. It is only about a four block walk from the other side of the Plaza to the location, picking up a liter of soda pop on the way as my party contribution. Neither the Directora or Vice Directora is present as I arrive at 8:00 P.M., but several people seem to be expecting me and there are rapid introductions all around. The person in charge for the night appears to be one of the instructors, Maria de los Angeles. There are about forty students gathered around the doorway to the school as Maria and two assistants are hurrying around putting the last signs up for a game the group will be playing.
Meanwhile, I've asked several students about softball and am introduced to Maria Virginia Torres, a sixteen year old girl who I'm told is the best player in Parana and one of the best, if not the single best, player in all of Argentina! She is the starting third baseman and cleanup hitter for the Argentina Junior Women's National Team, and has played in a world tournament in Chicago, hitting several home runs in the tournament. She says she averages about one home run per game playing in Argentina. Very impressive statistics if they are true. Maria tells me the season is over in Parana, and no teams play now until after September 1 except the few all-star players like her that practice all year round. She has a practice this Friday at four o'clock on the Plumazo Park field across from the softball stadium, and invites me to attend if I'd like. I readily accept the invitation. I tell her meanwhile she should study her English, past the TOEFL, and if she is as good as everyone here says, maybe one day she can go to school and play in America!
She does look like a player. She is 5'9" tall, medium build, with a solid looking lower body in tight jeans and broad muscular shoulders and upper body in a large white sweatshirt. She has copper skin, dark hair tied back behind her head, and bright dark eyes dominating her round face. She is very pleasant to talk with and laughs easily.
8:20 P.M. The Directora arrives and I'm informed by her the Vice Directora will not be able to attend tonight. Everyone is now called into a large room for a welcome and directions. I've observed that from the outside, the school is just a door; but on the inside it is quite large with five classrooms, a small office, a large bathroom, and a good sized courtyard with a small fountain. The building is relatively well cared for, and much nicer than any of the classrooms at the public schools I've seen. After the Directora gives a brief welcome, Maria de los Angeles takes over. Maria is twenty-seven years old and full of energy. She is nicely dressed in a business suit of light green and black plaid, with a simple white blouse. She removes the jacket as she seems bursting with energy.
She divides the students into two teams, one representing the U.S. and one Argentina. The teams are instructed to follow arrows, instructions, and signs, all in English, to reach a particular goal. The first team to do so is the winner. I'm a little surprised that she gives about half of the instructions in Spanish. From my own knowledge and training in ESL, I understand only English is to be spoken inside the doors of the classrooms. In any case, they are soon off and running around the building from room to room ending up at the fountain, where the Argentina team wins. The team chants, "Argentina, Argentina, Argentina," just like at the futbol games! They are given a large box of candy by the Directora as their prize to share among the members of the winning team. Everyone then heads back to the room where we started.
8:45 P.M. I'm now briefly introduced and simply say who I am, what I'm doing in Argentina, and that I would be happy to speak with any of them about the U.S. if they would like, so please come by and say hello during the party. A variety of food and drinks are then brought out, and the party begins in earnest. Most of the food is types of Argentinean snacks, appetizers, empanadas, etc., but there is also pizza - the universal food! Drinks are mostly Pepsi, though someone also brought a little "cerveza."
During the party, three young men, all high school students, and three young women, all university students, come over and talk to me. Two of the young men, Hermano and Gustavo, speak English quite well and plan to study business and economics at the university level and feel English will help them. They both say, "We like English." They have visited Miami, Tampa and Orlando, Florida, and say they liked Busch Gardens even better than Disney World because of the animals. They ask me several questions about Tennessee and the weather there. They seem very interested in the U.S. They tell me it is very hot in Parana right now for winter, and is usually much colder. They say summer in Parana is hot every day, from 32 to 38 centigrade, or 92 to 104 fahrenheit. Sweat all the time in summer. The third young man, Daniel, is quiet but is wearing a Phoenix Suns tee shirt and I tell him I lived in Phoenix for seven years and had been to several Suns' games. Daniel says, "I love the thing you call, ahhh, what is it?" I ask, "The mascot?" He says, "Yes, the mascot. The Gorilla. I like him." One of the girls asked about the Gorilla, so I tell them a little about what he does. One of the girls has also been to Florida and Disney World, but also to Paris and Euro-Disney, which she liked better.
9:15 P.M. Four of the students shake hands with me and leave, but two young women want to know more about UT. They are both business/computer students who would like to study a year in the U.S. I tell them what I can and give both a business card and invite them to write me and I will send them information and brochures. They say they will write, so we'll see. I hope they do so. Since their classes normally let out at this time, the party is starting to break up and individuals are heading out the door.
9:30 P.M. Only a few employees remain as I stop to thank the Directora for her invitation and tell her, "I'm having a wonderful time in Parana." I remind her I will be at classes tomorrow night as I head out the door. I stroll back to the Plaza and down the peatonal two blocks to the telephone company office, where you take a number and wait for a booth to be free to make your call. There are nine booths, with a wait of often an hour or more during the day, but now it is only five minutes before my number is called. I speak with my daughter for only four minutes to make sure all is okay at home, walk back to the counter to pay for the call, and find the four minutes cost me eighteen dollars! I guess I won't be calling home too often! I walk back to the Plaza and sit and write for a while because it is a beautiful night and a beautiful plaza.
It is 10:00 P.M. and it must be 70 degrees Fahrenheit, like a summer night in the Midwest U.S., yet it's the dead of winter here. Just beautiful. I'm also thinking about where to go when and what to do next. I'm committed to observing ESL classes on Wednesday and Thursday, and softball practice on Friday, so I'm busy for the next three days. Then, however, school is out for a month long winter break, and the softball players leave after practice for a Saturday exhibition in B.A. and other Argentina cities to the south. Come this weekend I'll probably head to Santa Fe next, where there are supposedly several interesting historical sites to visit. Guess I'll just keep reading the guide book and decide day to day. I'm learning so much, but now getting very tired again. It is 10:55 P.M. and time to walk the one block back to the hotel and get some sleep.
9:00 A.M. Sleep a little late this morning, but then shower, dress and feel good. Negotiate with hotel owner for several more nights and he comes down to twenty-two dollars per night. We have gotten to like each other and have become quite friendly, so he is now amiable to a discount. The room is still over my original budget, but every little bit counts. The weather has turned for the worse. It is gray and cool outside and I'm again wearing a turtleneck and a UT sweatshirt. My UT orange stands out as "naranja" is not a common color here. I walk a little down the peatonal to get the blood circulating, stop for a cup of te, and then relax on the plaza for a few minutes.
The plaza is busy with people of all ages strolling by, all dressed in the layered look that is the winter standard here. Three men, who appear to be Indians, are building a frame structure of some kind near the bench I'm sitting on, using what look like 2" x 4" studs for the frame. They are working very slowly. I'll check later to see what it is? I take another short walk around the area.
11:00 A.M. I enter the famous "Plaza Bar" and take a seat at a small window table overlooking the main plaza. It is so relaxing just to sit here and watch. I order cappuccino and dos medias lunas. After just a short wait, the waiter brings the medias lunas and then, a minute later, the cappuccino. Whenever I've ordered te or cafe in South America, I have been given three little paper sacks of sugar, each twice the size of one in the U.S. They like their drinks dulce here. I take a sip and discover I need the sugar. The cappuccino is very good but quite strong, and any lingering sleep is now gone. There is already cinnamon in the cappuccino but I quickly add one of the sugars. Ah, that is much better!
The medias lunas are fresh, crisp, and melt in my mouth. The "Plaza Cafe" is as expensive for one person as for two people at "Confiteria Floyd," just a block away - but such is the nature of fame! The "Plaza Cafe" is about half full at this time, about sixty-five percent men, discussing business and, no doubt, solving the great events of our day and time. It is very lively and noisy. Most are smoking and the air is gray with puffs of their exhaust. That is the only negative to its exciting atmosphere for an American used to cleaner air, at least indoors. Due to the climate, the breezes, and the lack of heavy industry, the air outdoors here seems to be cleaner than the U.S., which somehow seems confusing to me. I wonder why neither country can keep both cleaner.
There are also teens from Parana Normal School at several tables. There are no age restrictions in bars or restaurants here, and all ages may go in and out routinely. I sit at my window table and write for a while. It is acceptable to linger as long as you like over te, cafe or alcohol in the "Plaza Bar" or any other such place in Argentina. It is the custom, and it is clear many are doing so, talking, reading the dairio, or staring out the window in contemplation of their own. As an American, I tend to rush and have to remind myself to slow down. To rush in and rush out is almost an insult, as if one doesn't appreciate the quality of the cafe, te, or life. Life is good in the "Plaza." Even the waiters look sharp with navy blue pants, blue and white longsleeved pinstriped shirts, blue socks and black shoes. Their professional look is further complimented by navy blue vests with deep red lapels and collars, red "belt" in the back, red pocket trim, and three red vest buttons. A deep red bow tie completes the ensemble. All carry an order pad in their back hip pocket, some on the right, some on the left, their only variation in dress. The waiters are older here, all with a touch of distinguished gray in their hair. This is a quality place and I have no doubt most of the waiters have been here for mucho anos.
The place itself is L-shaped, long on the plaza side, shorter around the corner. The long bar extends about half the length of the plaza side. The bar has inlaid wood patterns along the front, along with six black wood stools. The bar also has just a touch of gold trim around the top and the back bar wall features white tiles @ 8" x 12", also with a touch of gold along the top. Behind the bar are three workers, one female in a white sweater, one man in a white shirt, and the manager handling the cash register. He is tall, salt & pepper hair and mustache, wearing a bright red v-necked sweater over a red and white striped dress shirt, open at the collar. His eyes seem to watch everything, and only he handles the register. The kitchen area is behind him, but I can see nothing but white tiles on the wall and some silver aluminum of the cooking area. Wood is featured everywhere, light oak brown for the bar, five pillars, and two-thirds of the way up the walls. A few odd black and white photos and one gold plaque hang on the walls.
There are forty tables, thirty-two on the plaza side and eight on the short side. Eighteen are window tables, fourteen on the plaza side and four on the short side. The tables are all identical, @two foot square, wooden, light maple brown with black imitation marble inserts on the top. The chairs match but have cloth seats of a black/gray/brown/pink floral contemporary print. There are three chairs by each of the window tables, four by all the others. The banos are behind a silver door in the center of the long leg of the L. There is a large mirror next to the bano door. The floor is all 15" square tiles, four black to one white in a diagonal pattern, a "manly," classy, business look. The ceiling is sixteen feet high with six ceiling fans high up, five on the plaza side. They all lay quietly in mid-winter. There are glass double doors on the corner, set at a diagonal to the corner, and also a set midway on the plaza side. I feel as if I could sit here and watch and write forever, an Argentinean Hemingway, sitting by the window.
11:55 P.M. I've finished my capuchino, am wide awake, and feel like a long walk. I walked comparatively little yesterday, so my legs are rested. I signal the waiter to pay my check and head out to the main plaza. I think about the manager and have noticed that even in small shops, only one person is generally entrusted with handling the money. One pays first at some shops, and on the way out at others including Burger King and McDonald's! Very different here. I see the Indians have made no progress on their structure? The Plaza Primero de Mayo has forty benches, several always occupied by lovers, several by the aged, and several by vendors. A young man walks by me wearing a Georgia Bulldog sweatshirt. I'm wearing a UT sweatshirt. I wonder, do I bark at him?
I begin walking down the San Martin peatonal and then take Rivadava toward the Rio Parana. It is 1:15 P.M. as I rest on a green and yellow wood and concrete bench. Directly in front of me is the @ forty tall monument to Urquiza, and behind it is a lovely view of the Rio Parana. Behind me is a large children's play area with many pieces of equipment, similar to children's playground equipment in the U.S., except here it is all painted in bright multi-colors of red, yellow, blue and green. Though the sky is still gray, the weather has warmed again. I've removed two layers of clothing and am down to a tee shirt once more. Extra clothing is now in my backpack, as I know I may need it again in minutes!
Walking down toward the river, I again notice all the people wearing "American" clothing, and I get to thinking about the futbol game when the young men booed the U.S. National Anthem. Yet they all wear "American" clothes with real or "fake" U.S. names or universities on them. The "cinco amigos" told me they all have clothes with U.S. stuff on them. Gustavo said, "It is the fashion."
I also notice the policia as I walk. Every government building and all the banks have at least one or two policia at the entrance or entrances. I have heard one should not attempt to take photos of policia or policia stations, and I choose not to test that rule. In return, everywhere I've been I've felt safe. I am generally a wise and wary traveler, but I've seen nothing resembling a thief and have not felt any danger anywhere. I passed the Escuela Del Centenario on my walk toward the river also. It got me thinking again about how all the schools and government buildings here are strongly built and architecturally lovely from the outside, but only the government seems to get any money for furniture, paint and maintenance on the inside. The priorities of this country are confusing to me. They list Parana Normal School as a tourist attraction in brochures, but then don't physically maintain it! It all leaves me to wonder.
1:40 P.M. It is cooling again and the birds high in the trees around me seem to be complaining about my presence, so it seems time to move on. I decide to walk down and through the "Parana Antiguo" toward the original port of the city and the site of it's founding. The birds sing cheerily as I leave, pleased to again have the area to themselves. The trees are such a mix here. There are palms, both tall and short, that are obviously tropical, evergreens, and trees that appear deciduous but are obviously evergreen, at least in this climate! It is mid-winter and the only leaves on the ground appear to be those from an occasional strong breeze. As I rise from my bench, I walk behind the Monument Urquiza for an overview of the Rio Parana and the Puerto Viejo below. Two large V's of ducks fly overhead heading west? I can't figure why?
2:30 P.M. I'm sitting on a bench near the end of Avenida Estrado in Puerto Viejo at the atracadero for the Ciudad de Parana. There is a ferry from here to Santa Fe eight times daily and four times on Sundays and Holidays. Passengers are only $.50 and autos $1.50 U.S. Large trucks are expensive though and must pay by the axle. The river is very wide here and I remember two young men at the party last night telling me the Parana is the widest river in the world. I don't know the truth of that, but I don't doubt the possibility. It is a BIG river here. One has to wind around several streets and down the hill to get here, and I first went several blocks out of the way before realizing my mistake. I was in a poor neighborhood of very small homes and there was trash in the streets, but each of the individual homes and yards were generally neat and clean, though very old. On one corner there stood a small building, "Centro de Salud," where a sign announced meetings of Group #1 of Alcoholicas Anonimos. Some problems vary little around the world.
I find my way back to the correct street and head down the hill on Avenida Estrada. The road down the hill is stone block, attesting to it's steepness as the block allows wheels to grip better going uphill. At the bottom it levels to a flat concrete road for about a mile, all the way to the port docks. It is a sad depressing walk. The homes are small and were once well built, but they are all now well over a century old and difficult to keep clean, although a few have tried hard with paint and ornamentation. Many are empty and in ruins. Of those lived in, I wonder if they are owner occupied, squatters, or controlled by Argentinean slumloads? It is a very poor area, yet a step up from the shantytowns. I think about the relativity of poor and it's lack of a definitive meaning. All the side streets but one on each side are composed of dust, dirt, or sand.
The children I see on the street, pre-school to teens, have that look of defeat and despair often found among multiple generation victims of poverty. It hits the outside observer in the heart. I have walked a mile through, and soon a mile back, not in their shoes, but in their neighborhood, where I now sit alone on this bench. One young boy comes by my bench on a bicycle. He stops and stares for several minutes at the water, as if wishing there was somewhere he could go, before he turns and rides away. A middle-aged couple comes walking by, he with his arm around her, both talking softly.
A horse cart comes trotting by carrying a driver and a young boy. They are standing as the man holds the reins. There are no permanent seats on any of the carts I've seen, but some have a board they lay across the top as a temporary seat and remove as the cart fills with garbage. These horse drawn carts are seen throughout the city, usually in the late afternoon or early evening, gathering up the bags of trash that businesses and individuals have placed out by the curb. Do they go through the bags and salvage what they can? Where do they dump it? Somewhere in their own neighborhood? I've seen no city or private garbage trucks. Are there any? What if these people were organized? Could they be organized? There can be immense power in the hands of those who pick up the trash of others as America has learned in New York and other major U.S. cities. I wonder about all these things.
2:55 P.M. It is colder again. I had slipped a long sleeved shirt on at the top of the hill, took it off half way to the docks, and now put it back on again as I start my walk back the same way I came. It is the only through route from the docks for the first mile. Walking back, I observe there are still some industrial sites down here where work activity is still evident. Active companies, such as Esso, have work sites surrounded by high fences topped with barbed wire, and all seem to have large guard dogs on the inside. But then there seem to be dogs everywhere! As I rose from my bench by the port and turned from the water, there were five dogs of various sizes and colors all barking at each other within fifty feet of me. Two were chained, three roamed free, all were barking. Strangely enough, there was a small beef calf chained to a small casa across the street, but the dogs were ignoring it! Poor neighborhoods always seem to have a lot of dogs, most always roaming free, which in turn makes for a lot more dogs! There are dogs somewhere near me during my entire walk through the area.
There are piles of rubble in many places, where it is obvious a building has been demolished, or just died and was pushed aside. The only drainage ditch/canal running through the area is open, heavily littered with trash, and has a
distinct odor, even in winter. One can only imagine the area in summer heat.
There is no music heard on my walk, which perhaps speaks louder than any music could. The homes are generally depressing in appearance except three that have been brightly painted, one an orchid purple, another a lime green, and the third a sky blue. The local "Centro de Salud" is also painted, a brilliant pink! One residence is a twin hulled barge somehow placed perfectly on a lot. It is six foot off the ground on it's hulls, six foot high above that, twelve foot wide and about twenty-eight foot long. How it arrived in it's current position, six blocks from the water, I cannot imagine! The city bus does run through this area, perhaps the active industries keeping it in business. Even the sign, "Puerto Viejo," seen entering the area appears to have given up. Originally green and white, it now is tri-colored, with rust the dominant third color.
As I return to the entrance to the area, there is an athletic club on the corner that at first seems very out of place. It has white stucco walls with two premium red clay lighted courts on the west end. One court is occupied by an adult male and a teenage boy. The other is occupied by an adult male coach and two youths he is working with, a boy about twelve and a girl about ten. In the center of the complex are two lighted handball/racquetball type courts, a sand volleyball court, and a lighted small grass futbol field. All are unoccupied at the moment. There is also a small straw roofed cabana with half the roof missing. The futbol field is the only one I've seen so far that is not occupied. I wonder if that is because the young boys of the "Puerto Antiguo" are not allowed in this complex? On the east end of the complex, there are three more premium red clay tennis courts, though these three are not lighted. One is filled with an adult male coach and three students about age nine, two boys and a girl; another contains an adult male coach and a boy about twelve. The third stands empty.
As I step back out to the street, there is lovely landscaping, and a large, well-equipped, children's playground to the east. Again, it is colorfully painted in bright red, green, blue, and yellow. I now realize I'm at the west end of Avenida Dr. Laurenca, the city’s premier river front drive! Those using and admiring the drive would normally go up or down the stone paved road hill, never turning north to see the poverty behind. I decide to walk east on Laurenca for a bit and admire the river. There are many joggers out today, including one group of about fifteen young men that is obviously a futbol team working out. A coach is with the team and he is working them hard. They sprint around the playground and down the river walk, the coach urging them on. Their legs are strong and muscular, but also marked and scarred. Two young men have quite large scars on their thighs, attesting to futbol as a rough game. The many picnic tables along the beach side are painted in the same bright colors as the children's playground. Paint seems to be the answer to many things in Argentina. The "Jeopardy" question is, "What is the answer to age and decay in Argentina?"
There are no boats out fishing that I can see, but I observe several dozen people fishing from the bank over a mile stretch. Some have only tiny rods or sticks, string and hooks. Many have rods an inch or two in diameter and eight foot long, indicating there are some BIG fish out there! The bait of choice appears to be some type of small crab on large multi-barbed hooks. About half way down the river walk is the "Museo de la Ciudad," a pleasant little museum that gives one a nice overview of the city’s history, with a friendly and patient staff. I'm particularly struck by an old portrait of former Government Finance Minister Carmelo Eduardo Peralta, who looked so much like former U.S. President Ronald Reagan I want to check out Ronnie's family tree!
I pass two more futbol fields as I walk, both on the river side. The first is a middle sized one with fourteen boys of various ages playing. It looks like a come one, come all, anybody can play game. The larger field, several blocks further down, contains twelve teen boys playing and others that appear waiting to play - perhaps against the winners? This was a more serious game with many players in the typical high socks with protective ankle/shin guards under the socks. If no guards, your shins will take a bad beating. It is one of the hazards of the game.
Soon Avenida Laurenca pulls away from the river and heads uphill a bit and I find myself in a poorer, more blue collar, section of town. I keep walking, stopping briefly to talk to a construction worker who is wearing a University of Arizona shirt, as one of the shirts I'm wearing is also an Arizona shirt. I tell him my children both went to the University of Arizona and he lets me take his photo before walking on, both of us smiling.
I next stop briefly at "Veterinara El Tucan," a pet store, to look briefly at the birds, turtles, and guinea pigs for sale. Surprisingly, it is much like a pet shop in the U.S., even the variety of birds being similar: parakeets, canaries, finches and parrots. The turtles were small, brown, and different though. I also examine the wicker furniture at "Hiola El-Ca" and several items at the "Artesania Regional." I've walked several miles east and now turn south on Ramirez toward the bus terminal. It is another mile plus to the bus terminal where I stop and check possible times for taking the bus to Santa Fe this weekend. From here it is back west on Avenida Echague and 25 de Mayo another mile to the area of the American English Institute.
I stop only at a kiosco for some bottled water. Kiosco's are interesting little places. They are everywhere for a quick drink, snack, or especially candy. They are the Argentina equivalent of a U.S. 7-11, only that is also about their size on average! They seem to be as small as 3' x 3' to as large as up to about 8' x 15'. There seems to always be one within only a few blocks of wherever you are. 7:00 P.M. I stop for an ice cream and cup of te at a small horseshoe shaped retail area across from the American English Institute. I take some time to write, sitting at a small table in the middle of the shops. I have walked a long way today and it feels good to sit for the moment. I only have to cross the street to visit tonight's English class.
8:00 P.M. I'm at the American English Institute, sitting in the back of a class of just four students, all in their first year of English study. The instructor is Rosa, an enthusiastic young woman of about twenty-seven years. She is only about 5'2" tall, but with a broad frame and a strong booming voice that seems much bigger than her size. She wears black slacks, black high topped shoes with small heels, a white blouse buttoned up the front, and a long red sweater unbuttoned down the front. Large white cuffs stick out of the sleeves of her sweater, which has two large pockets in front. She wears two scarfs, one red and one black, wrapped around her neck and tucked into the neck of her blouse, and a large black belt with a big gold buckle. She wears one large imitation pearl in each ear and one ring on the ring finger of each hand, gold on the left, silver on the right. Rosa has shiny black hair, slightly longer than shoulder length, that lays comfortably around her face. Her round face is highlighted by dark brown eyes, lashes and brows, with rosy cheeks and bright red lips.
The students are doing an exercise involving getting and giving directions to places and asking simple related questions. The students speak mostly English, but do sneak in some Spanish occasionally. They either do not have, or choose not to enforce, any all English rules here. The student speaks well, though with an accent, but the students seem insecure. One young man @ 22, and two teen girls @ 17 and 19, seem quite shy and insecure. A woman @ 45 talks the most and seems the most confident. The room holds only ten desks, all fairly new and in good shape. There is only a single light bulb and a separate overhead fan, not on in winter, hanging from the white ceiling, the light dim on the light green walls. Minimal by U.S. standards but considerably nicer than the classrooms of Parana Normal School.
The shy boy suddenly answers a question and, in doing so, reveals he is a singer! Rosa says, "A singer? Sing for us". He does, singing beautifully in Spanish to a round of applause! Rosa asks him a follow up question which he tries to answer in Spanish, but Rosa says, "No. Try it in English". He does but eventually has to finish in Spanish. They start talking about music in Spanish and I wonder about this. From the ESL training both I and my daughter have had, this is against all the rules. They don't seem to push very hard or put much pressure on here. I wonder if that is the Latin nature and temperament? The students are now reading a sample postcard home from a student and answering questions about what it says. The instructor then surprises me by requesting I ask the students some personal questions to test if they can answer them. I do so, asking names and questions about where they live, grade in school, and what they are studying. All are born and raised in Parana, but they answer the questions in English quite well. They then ask me questions in English about my background. I answer quite slowly, but some words they do not know, so the instructor translates those into Spanish. The students are a friendly, amiable, group.
9:00 P.M. Rosa dismisses class, telling them she will see them all in August after their winter break is over. I thank her for allowing me to sit in and I also leave. One young woman from the class, Hermina, age 17, is outside and walking my direction, me to my hotel, her to the bus, and we talk along the way. It is much colder and damp now and it appears a new weather system is coming in. Hermina tells me it was cold in B.A. yesterday and the weather comes to Parana one day later. She speaks in struggling English, me in struggling Spanish. She tells me she lived one year in Montpelier, France, and speaks a little French. She has also made the trip to Florida that so many South Americans seem to favor: Miami, Tampa and Orlando. She says, "I love Deeesknee" (Disney). She also tells me of her complaints regarding the public schools being in such bad repair and the economy of Argentina so poor, and the government doing nothing to help. She said she hoped learning English would help provide some opportunities for her in the future. I tell her I hope so too.
We part at the plaza as she goes one way for her bus, and I another way towards my hotel. A minute later though I decide to stop at "Floyd Confiteria" to finish my notes and get some hot te in me. I am now wearing three layers again and it is still cold, plus the misty dampness is getting to me. The te helps immediately as I sit by the window and watch the walkers go by. All are walking faster tonight as they each try to keep warm. A ragged little boy stops by the table to beg, as they often do, but I've learned to say no. I pay my check, walk the two blocks back to the hotel, and crawl into bed. It is only 9:35 P.M., but I'm tired.
9:00 A.M. I lay in bed awake this morning, feeling a little lazy, but then take a good hot shower and feel great. I'm really short on clean clothes though and decide I must find a laundromat and do my laundry tomorrow. I am hoping that one laundry stop will be enough to get me through the trip, but probably not unless the money goes even faster than the clothes. 9:45 A.M. I'm out on the Plaza and notice the Indians still have only a frame up, but now it is a much bigger frame! It is twenty feet across the front, with seven sections going back from there like a long tunnel with no walls. Each section is twelve feet deep, a total of about eighty-four feet long! I am now curious as to what will be draped over the frame and why. I'll just have to watch and see. No one is working right now. It is very cool and damp this morning and I'm wearing three layers again but no jacket. I'm confident it will warm up some before long, and I don't want to carry the jacket.
I wander through a few shops on the Calle San Martin peatonal before entering the GAIA Cafeteria, about two blocks from the plaza for morning "Te con leche Gaia." "GAIA Cafeteria" has become my favorite place. The te is excellent and served with a good sized basket of little breads, cookies, butter and jam. All for only U.S. $2.50! The te and the milk are both steaming and the breads are delicious. It is magnificent on any morning, and especially a cool damp one like today. I have discovered three favorite places for te: "GAIA Cafeteria," "Confiteria Floyd," and the "Plaza Bar." GAIA is the smallest and the only one with windows that open to the outside air and located on the Calle San Martin peatonal. Floyd is the largest, the least expensive for te, and with a high ceiling, lots of color, and a "fun" decor and atmosphere. It is located right off the corner of the Plaza Primero de Mayo. The Plaza is located right on the plaza! It's the most expensive, has the "classiest" decor, and shouts history at you. Everyone who is anyone in Parana and much of Argentina has sat at a table in the Plaza.
Me, I'm simple folk and I love my window table at GAIA. There are only three window tables and I feel special here, "muy importante." There are always three employees visible when I come in, the male manager, Jorge, and two young ladies, both always friendly, charming and attentive. They are Soledad, the waitress, and Fernandina, who works the small eight foot long bar and the kitchen area. Jorge mostly sits by the cash register, watches and supervises, as is the way of the Argentinean male and supervisor. There are only eight tables, with one or two always available. Seven tables are two foot square and the eighth is a small round one. All are thick, solid, pine wood except the little round one is metal. Four of the tables have three chairs each, four have only two chairs. All of the chairs are also pine, but with thick, olive green, seat pads for comfort. The tablecloths are a matching olive green bottom cloth, with a multicolored olive green based print cloth over the top. Very tasteful look. The floor consists of eight inch square glazed green tiles with masonry and wood edging and inlays. Quite beautiful. The front windows are matching wood with clear glass and are removal to provide an open air setting. The windows are decorated with a "fluffy" green and white curtain valence.
GAIA appears decorated by a woman, but very comfortable for a man. It is both open and intimate. There is a ten foot long plant box outside the windows across the front of the building, with lovely green plants guarded by a brass rail on the peatonal side. A few plants with small pink flowers drape over the peatonal side of the planter for a nice decorating touch. The outside of the building is about twelve foot across, and the same matching pine as the interior. There are several round metal tables on the peatonal one can use if they wish, but it is now winter and the weather is too cool. The inside walls are a mix of warm matching pine wood, green and brown print wallpaper, and an eclectic display of framed prints and photos. There are two wooden shelves on the wall with a small display of books. The bar is also matching pine with both wood and mirrored panels, each about six inches by twelve inches, along the front facing. The bar is set at a slight angle to the tables, with two pine stools in front. The back bar is also pine interspersed with green and white tiles, small and simple.
The te is served in white porcelain that seems warm and inviting. You get the equivalent of two good sized cups for your order compared to just one at Floyd or the Plaza. The breads are partially toasted and contain some type of seed or seeds that are delicious. I don't know what kind they are, but I dislike caraway so I know these aren't caraway. The cookies are of a simple sugar type, sweet, but not too sweet. Good food, pleasant atmosphere, great te. GAIA is small, so you can easily miss it. Remember, it is on the peatonal, Calle San Martin 781, the north side of the street, just two doors west of Calle Pazos. Try to get there.
11:10 A.M. I decide to walk back to my hotel to get my jacket. It has gotten colder again! At the hotel though, I decide to stick with the layered look, but more layers. I leave wearing one Arizona tee shirt, one burgundy turtleneck, one Tennessee sweatshirt, and a green and black sweater over it all. I've also added my UT hat and some brown gloves I purchased in Montevideo, Uruguay. I must look thirty pounds heavier! As I was walking back to the hotel, I was thinking about my breakfast and my visit to a groceria yesterday. In the groceria there was no cereal on the shelves except a few boxes of Quaker Oatmeal and Quaker Natural Granola. The Argentinean people simply do not eat cereal, or breakfast in general. It is cafe, te, and a media luna or other sweet bakery item of some kind. I wonder if that is why they eat such big lunches and then siesta - by lunchtime they are really hungry! Also in the groceria, soda pop is still relatively expensive, but vino is excellent and very inexpensive, full liter bottles from $1.20 to $3.80 U.S. One is tempted to keep a bottle in their backpack! At a corner fruitstand, grapefruit may be two kilos for $7.00 U.S., but 25 or 30 naranjas (oranges) are only $2.00 U.S. I enjoy oranges many times on my journey.
As I walk back down the peatonal, I stop at a small panaderia, "La Perla de Buenos Aires," about a half block past GAIA, on the same side of the street. I buy a piece of what looks like apple kuchen to me. My 90 year old Aunt Hattie, in Black Creek, Wisconsin, made the best apple kuchen in the world. This kuchen wasn't Aunt Hattie's, but she would have approved! It is excellent. I continue down through the peatonal and beyond, looking for a small "lavado" I saw the other day. I find it on Nogoya, just east of San Martin, check it's hours of operation, and decide I must do some laundry there tomorrow morning. Es necessidad. From here I continue walking back toward the Rio Parana and the "Lanchas de la Excursions" sign hanging about two blocks west of where San Martin empties into Avenida Laurenca, just across from the "Museo de la Ciudad." At the corner I stop for a few naranjas from a vendor.
1:30 P.M. I'm sitting on a bench between the Museo and the Lancha writing some field notes, eating my oranges, and waiting to take the boat tour on the Rio Parana that I find leaves at 3:00 P.M. today. Since I have extra time, I decide to walk along the rio for a bit. One group of about fifteen men and two women, all dressed alike in blue and gray sweats, jogs along the rio walk. It is too cold today for most to enjoy the rio, so I observe only scattered people. I continue to eat oranges as I walk. The oranges seem a cross between an orange and a tangerine. Most have only one seed inside and are quite good. They say polite Argentineans peel their fruit with a knife, but I have no knife and must use my fingers. It is okay. No one is watching. I'm glad I still have my four layers of clothing on.
1:45 P.M. I rest a bit, and then stroll about three blocks east to the area by the "Quinches de Paja," a paradilla / restaurante on the rio side. Their specialty is grilled fish. In their parking lot, a small blue Fiat 600R is failing to start for two women, both around age forty. They start to push it out toward the street, so I go over to assist. We push it out of the parking space, up to the top of a small hill, then the driver gets back in and we push it downhill and, fortunately, it starts. They say something in Spanish quite rapidly that I don't understand and I reply, "No entiende. Turisto. Estados Unidos." The passenger smiles, give me a thumbs up sign, and a big, "Muchos gracias," as she jumps into the passenger side of the car. I yell, "De nada," and wave as they drive away.
Three boys, age ten to twelve, had been watching us, but now they go back to kicking around a futbol on the front restaurant patio, near the street. No tables or chairs are on the patio due to the winter season. One boy kicks the ball into the road and it hits directly into the side of a car driving by. The driver stops his car in the middle of the road, gets out, and yells at the three boys. The boys apologize quickly, however, and no harm is done. The driver gets back into his car and leaves. The boys all laugh, two of them pointing at, and making fun of, the "bad" boy who actually kicked the ball. I walk out to the pier behind the restaurant, where there are three fisherman, two together and one man alone.
The river is very brown and muddy today. The fisherman tell me the rio originates in the Amazon and the cutting of all the trees (deforestation) has made the river brown with mud. The rio was clear many years ago. The duet stops fishing and seems more interested in a huge steak they have cut into three still large steaks and are grilling on an old concrete grill set more or less permanently by the side of the pier. They are also warming some potatoes on the grill. The solo fisherman has his ten foot pole setup at the end of the pier while he sits about thirty feet away in a folding lawn chair by a small metal folding table, smoking and waiting for a bite. He has caught nothing so far. On the table is a bucket of dirt with worms, his bait for the day, crawling around in it. Scattered hooks and sinkers are also on the table. I watch silently for a few minutes more and then walk back toward the Laucha, stopping only to get five more oranges for only forty cents U.S., from the same street vendor as earlier on the way.
2:50 P.M. I'm sitting on a bench across from the Laucha writing some field notes and waiting to see if there will be sufficient patrons for the tour boat to sail today. Several people have begun to gather by the dock, so it looks good for sailing. I eat two more oranges, watch eight boys and their coach, another futbol team, working out on my left for a few minutes, and then cross the street and get on the boat. The boat is the "Realidad II." It seats about 106, seventy-six inside and about thirty on the rear deck, but today there are only eleven passengers. The other passengers are a family of four, parents, son @ eight and daughter @ thirteen; another family of four, parents, son @ six and daughter @ nine; a couple around twenty years of age, and me. Except for the captain, I'm the old man of the boat. It is cold as I sit on the back deck waiting to leave. Two teenage boys are fishing off the bank just behind the boat with long ten foot poles. Both boys are wearing several layers of clothes, including hooded sweatshirts. I'm cold sitting on the deck, but I refuse to go inside the cabin. I want to experience the "air" and "odor" of the Rio Parana.
The Captain is Hector Cooke, a tall, thin, man of about sixty with a tanned weathered face. He is neatly dressed in navy blue slacks, white shirt under gray v-neck sweater, black jacket, and light blue deck shoes. His clothing is all light weight, but he doesn't seem at all cold! His First Mate is Miguel, a young man of about twenty-five, wearing white deck shoes, blue jeans, black shirt under a white sweatshirt, and a black beret. He looks very nautical. They get us away from the dock on schedule at 3:15 P.M..
Captain Hector gives a nice running commentary in Spanish, but even if you don't understand a word, the ride is worth the views. You soon understand the slogans you see on brochures and shirts around the city, "Viva el Rio en Parana" and "Entre Rios, todo los verdes." The river is beautiful and all the shades of green are evident along the shores, even in the middle of winter. We cruise by the Puerto Viejo and the docks I visited yesterday. Most of the passengers come to the back of the boat to take photographs or have them taken. Miguel is very helpful with taking them for you, or being in them as you like. He is quite dashing in his black beret with the small gold anchor emblazoned on it. Halfway through the cruise, Miguel fixes a mate which he shares with the Captain. Mate is everywhere!
The major reason to take the cruise, however, is the sheer size of the Rio Parana. The river looks big from the shore, but once you are on it the width is literally unbelievable. It is so wide that you have to keep reminding yourself you are on a river. It is far bigger and wider than probably any lake in the U.S. other than one of the Great Lakes. As for rivers, the mighty Mississippi would just be a tributary of the mightier Parana! When you hear that the two city governments of Parana and Santa Fe have combined to build a sixty million dollar tunnel under the river to connect the two cities, one marvels at the engineering feat. One looks forward to seeing the tunnel, but should take the cruise first to greater appreciate the tunnel feat!
The views all along the route are excellent, even on a very gray day. The perspective of the city of Parana is totally different from the water than you get from walking the city. From the river you get a greater appreciation for the size of the city and the beauty of its location, high on a magnificent bluff. The cruise goes a full hour and a quarter before returning to the dock and is a good value at just $7.00 U.S. per person. The crew was also quite friendly and likable, Miguel offering candy to all and Hector patiently allowing parents to take pictures of their children at the helm. It was obvious from their smiles that everyone enjoyed the ride and was sad to see it end, despite the cool gray weather.
As it was cool, I walked back up the hill and over to Calle San Martin and then through the peatonal eating my last oranges on the way. I glanced in several shops on the peatonal, noticing the different types of mate cups, called "cueros," for sale from $2.00 to $24.00 U.S. I also learn the silver straws are actually called "alpacayoros." They have a gold lip and a filtering spoon bottom to keep out bits of te leaves. They come in many different designs and range in cost from $5.00 to $20.00 U.S. A touch of class for your te!
At 5:30 P.M. I'm back at the Plaza Primero de Mayo and sit on a bench to rest for a few minutes, but soon decide I need some te myself. 5:45 P.M. I walk the few blocks to "GAIA Cafeteria," grab a chair and order, this time going with "Cafe con leche GAIA," still a bargain at $3.50 U.S. with their special basket of breads and cookies. I decide I definitely prefer the te over cafe. Argentina coffee is good but quite strong, more similar to New Orleans or European coffee in general. This is merely my individual preference, but don't order your cafe "negro" unless you clearly like it strong. I have traveled widely, and this is the strongest I've tasted.
I now head back to the hotel for a short rest before heading off to the American English Institute to observe another class. As I pass the main plaza at 6:15 P.M., I note the Indians have made no further progress on their structure. 7:50 P.M. I'm sitting in a classroom at the AEI. The teacher is Maria de los Angeles, the lady who coordinated the party the other evening. The classroom has seats for fourteen tonight, otherwise it is identical to the classroom next door I was in last night. Maria tells me she is 26 years old and has been studying English for fifteen years. She has been teaching at the AEI for three years. Tonight she wears a large bulky off-white wool sweater over a white turtleneck, blue jeans, and black boots with two inch heels. Like the other night, Maria is full of energy, bouncing in and out of the room as she and an assistant get ready for the students to arrive and class to begin. Her appearance is accented by round, silver, ring sized earrings, black rimmed glasses on a gold chain which she regularly takes on and off, a black watch on her left wrist, one thin gold ring on the second finger of her left hand, and one thick gold ring on the second finger of her right hand. She wears light makeup showing rosy cheeks and warm pink lips. She has dark hair, cut short about mid-neck and combed back on the sides over and behind her ears. She uses her hands constantly as she talks.
The students arrive and class begins. There are eight students tonight, four males and four females. The males are Daniel, 20, Carlos, 35, Hermano, 18, and Gustavo, 17. The females include Christine, 20, Gloria, 25, Lorena, 20, and Rosario, 18. Only one of the eight, Gloria, is married. Tonight’s lesson starts with words related to families and babies. The discussion includes moral issues, e.g., is it okay to be single and have a baby or not? They start their discussions in groups of 3, 3, 2, and then return to the full group. All discussion is in English as Maria does a good job of advocating both sides of the issue and keeping the discussion going. Maria is very energetic and talented, and it is easy to see why she is the Head Instructor after the owners.
The students now switch to an exercise that includes filling in the blanks on a questionnaire about two people who are meeting after many years apart. They go over the questions as a group, and Maria does a good job of utilizing knowledge and humor in keeping the students interested. If a student says something in Spanish she snaps at them quickly, "English please." These students are in their third year of English study and appear to be doing quite well in my observation. They switch to an exercise about a problem with an airplane in flight. It is semi-technical, with some "big" words, and they have to work hard at it, but most are getting it. Maria continues to work hard with them, using a lot of energy through both her voice and hands, chewing on the end of her glasses frame occasionally in thought. She is forced to use a few words of Spanish only when the students get stuck on a technical point. All in all, she is a most impressive teacher as her energy fills the room.
9:25 P.M. Maria announces class is over, as they actually have run a little late. She reminds the students what they are to work on at home during the winter school break and everyone heads for the door. As we step outside, I talk a few minutes with Hermano and Gustavo, give them a card and encourage them to consider a year of study in the U.S. during their university years. I tell them their English is good enough they can be successful in an American university if they work hard. They thank me and head for their homes. Maria's father picks her up in front of the school and we say a quick ciao.
9:35 P.M. I start to walk back toward the plaza and my hotel, but only get just over a block before I run into Jorge, waiting for a bus. Jorge is a salesperson at "Ken Club," a popular store on the peatonal where I've stopped in several times looking for a possible gift for my son. He speaks some English and we have held several conversations in the store at his request so he can practice English. We talk a minute as to where I've been and then I tell him I'm going to stop for te at Floyd and would he care to join me. He agrees and we walk the two blocks to Floyd, getting a window table on what appears to be a quiet night. He orders a cafe negro and I a te negro. We talk about where I've traveled, what I think about Argentina, and what his plans are for the future. He is twenty-one and not in school at present, but working full-time at the clothing store. Jorge says his main goal is to learn more English and travel. He repeats what I hear from so many young Argentineans, that he dislikes the federal government of Argentina and the poor economy, but he loves living in Parana, where he has lived his entire life. He says he often travels to B.A. to visit friends and loves B.A., but it is a very expensive city.
I tell him the reason I've been in the clothing store several times is try to find a gift for my son, who is very particular about what he wears. I describe my family and show him pictures of both my children. He asks if I will be coming into the store again tomorrow and I tell him I haven't really made any plans for tomorrow, but will just take the day as it comes. 10:05 P.M. As I invited him, I pay the check and we walk outside. I tell him I'm tired and heading to my hotel for some sleep. I shake his hand and say, "Good night. Thanks for the company and conversation for a little while," and he simply replies, "Good night," as we head our separate ways.
I head directly back to the hotel as I am tired, it is quite cold now. I'm very glad I have my jacket on tonight. I have to walk pass the Indian's "structure" on the plaza though and stop to quickly check any progress. It is still all frame, but now eleven sections long and, by my estimate, 20 feet wide and a little over 100 feet long! There is a large roll of thin plastic wrap on the ground that appears to be for the "walls" soon to come. We shall see. I go on to my room and write and read a little before retiring at 11:00 P.M. for the night.
8:00 A.M. I'm up, dressed and out the door, excited about my last full day in Parana. First thing today is a visit to the "Burbujas Lavadero." Es necessidad! As I stroll north through the peatonal, the shopkeepers are preparing for the day. Most all seem to sweep the area in front of their respective shops every day, sweeping into the street or depositing in a trash can on the peatonal. All scrub their sidewalks with soap and water regularly also and you see several doing it every morning, usually using a rough broom as a scrub brush. No one here depends on the government to keep anything clean, so they do it themselves. It is routinely part of their day. I notice several older women with brooms sweeping, and several large trash cans on wheels that look like they could be government employees, but there are no markings on the cans and one suspects they are independent cleaners, perhaps receiving a small pittance from the area shopkeepers for their efforts. Anything sponsored by the government is always very well marked and publicized so credit can be claimed.
My only stop is a quick one at a panaderia to grab several pastries for breakfast as I walk on toward the lavadero, about a mile and a quarter from my hotel. 8:30 A.M. I'm at the lavadero, a long narrow place about nine feet wide and thirty-six feet deep. There are six washers and eight dryers, all along the same wall. They are Speed Queen models, with all instructions on them in English. Instructions in Spanish are posted on the wall. The machines are a standard tan/biege color and designed for commercial operation. They do not take coins, but tokens you must purchase from the attendant who works at a counter and ironing area towards the back of the lavadero. She will do the washing and/or ironing for you for an extra fee. She is currently busy ironing now for someone who left their wash with her for later pickup. Apparently most people drop off their laundry as she seems to have quite a large amount of washing and ironing to keep her busy, while I'm the only person here doing my own clothes. The token per washer is $2.50 U.S. and the same per dryer. My one load is $8.00 compared to $3.00 at home. It is no wonder they wash clothes less often in Argentina!
The lavadero is very clean and, in fact, looks almost brand new. I deposit my clothes in a washer and deposit a token, but nothing happens. I question the attendant, but she says to just wait a few minutes and it will start. Sure enough, about five minutes later it does so! The washers fill slowly and quietly here and the water takes longer to heat then in the U.S. The machine starts and stops frequently, seeming to run on a different type cycle than in the U.S. It runs quiet though, and about twenty minutes later, the same time length as at home, my load is ready for the dryer. 9:10 A.M. I place my clothes in the dryer and the attendant tells me my load may be a little too big for one dryer. I don't wish to pay another $2.50 however, so I go for one load with my last token. While I wait, a lone woman comes in and leaves her laundry with the attendant for later pickup. The attendant immediately unloads it, does some spot cleaning on a few pieces, and places it in the washers. It takes two washers.
As I'm sitting here waiting for my clothes to dry, I find myself thinking about the owners of the hotel I'm staying at. The little old couple running it spend most of their time just sitting in the lobby watching television, especially him. She is seen more seldom. In actuality, I'm there so little I don't see much of either of them except to wave coming or going. He always has on a smile though, and is very friendly to me. Usually wearing a gray sweater, he reminds one of their own, or someone else's, sweet grandfather. When I checked in the first night he wanted to make sure I was alone and would stay alone. Apparently he runs a clean "Christian" establishment, with moral standards. One small sign behind the counter has "Christian Hotel" on it in small handwritten letters. He was waving his finger in my face that first night saying, "Solomente. No chicas. Solomente. No chicas." I assured him I was alone and there would be no women in my room. After the first two nights, he seemed to have developed complete trust in me and we now get along great. I pickup and drop off my own key behind the desk and he just waves at me.
Another impression I have of Argentina is how virtually every student or person I have spoken with echoes the same themes: They dislike their government, the government is crooked, the economy is bad, but they love Argentina, and those in Parana love their city. I can understand this easily as, despite government problems, Parana is a wonderful place with a good climate, scenic beauty, and a great river. "Viva el Rio en Parana" "Entre Rios - Todos los verdes" I like Parana and feel I could easily live and find a "home" here, perhaps even locating some long lost relatives.
9:30 A.M. Another woman, about age sixty, comes in and drops off her laundry. Her and the attendant seem to know each other and they speak enthusiastically for several minutes before the older woman leaves. I turn my attention to the attendant for a bit. She is about 5'2" tall, red hair tied back behind her ears in a bun, green eyes, freckles on her nose and cheeks, thin and quite attractive in my opinion. She wears a large bulky knit white cotton button up sweater over a black turtleneck. All four buttons are shut on the sweater, which also has two big pockets in front. She also wears faded blue jeans and brown hiking style shoes with thick black rubber soles. Her accents include bright red nail polish, a pearl in each ear, a gold chain bracelet on her left wrist, a small gold ring on the ring finger of her right hand, and wedding rings on her left hand ring finger. She works hard and stays constantly busy, leaving the impression of a strong work ethic.
The door to the "Bubbles Washing Place" has been left open by the attendant, though it is still cool outside, but not as cool as yesterday. The weather front that came through so frigidly yesterday appears to have been only a twenty-four hour front, and it seems to be warming today though the sky remains gray and overcast so far. I'm still sitting on the lavadero's only bench, waiting for my clothes to dry. My dryer stops at 9:55 A.M. after running for forty-five minutes, just like at home. I take out my clothes, only a few pieces slightly damp, fold them and head back to the hotel.
At the hotel I lay out the few damp pieces to dry and organize myself for my last full day in Parana. I try on a few of my "cambio" clothes and, surprisingly, they all fit! 10:45 P.M. I'm out the door of my hotel. Not a bad day so far. In less than three hours I've done my laundry, had breakfast, and have walked about two and a half miles. I pause first at the plaza and notice the Indians have made no further progress on their "structure." I look over the wares of a few vendors and purchase a small two dollar item I plan to use as a Christmas tree ornament, and then its east on Avenida Urquiza and south on several streets toward, eventually, the softball stadium. It is a long walk from the hotel.
1:00 P.M. I've walked a little over two miles so far and now stop at a small restaurant, "El Moncholo," on Avenida Crespo, just east of Ramirez. It is another mile or so to the stadium and I feel it is time I try some of the famous Parana pescado before I depart the city. I have no idea what type to try, so I just tell the waiter, "Pescado filette, no espina (bones) por favor," and hope for the best. I also order te, of course, and write some notes while I wait for my meal.
Earlier I had walked by the AEI to again thank them, but they were all locked up, apparently for the winter break. Now I sit and watch the traffic on Crespo and view the "Mercado Artesans Regional" across the street. The restaurant I'm in is not one of the fancier style found near the centro ciudad, but a local neighborhood place with formica and vinyl tables and chairs, and a red tile floor. The walls are white, but somewhat dirty, and the low ceiling is a faked thatched roof. The curtains are pale yellow and limp from years of humidity and hanging in the same spot. The tablecloth on my table is stained and torn in several places. The chairs are a mix of orange or yellow. There are only fourteen tables total.
1:20 P.M. The service is slow in keeping with the Argentina custom of a leisurely lunch, followed by a siesta. I'll be skipping the siesta part again. My filet, slightly blackened on one side, is brought to my table. The waiter tells me it is Surubi, a type of large South American catfish caught right here in the Rio Parana. It is slightly breaded and grilled, filling the dinner plate by itself. It is large, round, thin, and magnificent from the first bite. I add a little lemon and find it is excellent with, or without, the lemon. The waiter brings bread and papa fritas, which are both good, especially the bread. I have come to love the fresh Argentina bread and baked goods. Only the te is surprisingly disappointing - perhaps a different brand that I don't like as well? These extras are all clearly secondary to the Surubi though, as I cannot say enough about the outstanding flavor of the Surubi. This was clearly the best meal I'd had since arriving in Argentina. I am soon stuffed and unable to finish the papa fritas. As I relax after the meal and sip my te, I notice the four other occupied tables are all enjoying vino, two blanco and two tinto, typical of local tradition.
1:55 P.M. The restaurant radio is playing "California Dreaming" by The Mamas and Papas as I pay my check of $9.00 U.S. and leave. Strange! Feeling a bit lazy at the moment, I start walking again towards the softball stadium. Within a few blocks, however, I stop at a groceria and buy a bottle of water, as I'm thirsty and it has gotten warmer again. The temperature seems to change more often and rapidly here than any place I've ever been! It has not really rained today, but a real light mist appears every once in awhile.
2:45 P.M. I have arrived at the softball stadium, which looks sad and desolate against the gray sky. The field itself looks to be in good condition, however, as does the stands and the "Do Gout" area. I'm still early, so I walk across and down the street to the Parana Golf Club. There are only a few golfers on this cool, damp, winter day, so it is a peaceful place to walk and rest for a bit before walking back towards the stadium and across the street to the athletic park in which the softball practice field is located. It is a great park with excellent facilities including regulation fields for softball, field hockey, futbol, rugby, and one for American or Australian rules football, I'm not sure which.
3:30 P.M. I walk over to the third base dugout area for the softball field on which Maria Virginia Torres' practice will be held. There is a male coach, @ age forty, and three boys, all about sixteen, on the field. The coach is putting them through a variety of drills. Now he sends them to the outfield to catch flies, except one boy who stays by the coach to catch the balls that are thrown back in. I sense my chance, grab my glove out of my backpack, and trot out by the coach with a, "Permisso?" He nods and waves the third boy to the outfield. I am finally playing softball in Argentina! I didn't carry my glove thousands of miles for nothing! I take the throws for about twenty minutes before the boys are tired and the coach waves them in, ending practice.
3:55 P.M. We all enter the dugout and the boys change their shoes, gather their equipment, and leave. The coach speaks a little English, so we sit and talk, going back and forth in both languages. He is Ricardo Corgneil and he tells me he has been coaching youth teams in Parana for several years, and as also worked with Maria, who is known here as Chuchi, or "little woman." He has an extensive softball background and has played for Argentina in world tournaments in Cuba, New Zealand, Canada, the Philippines, Venezuela, Columbia, and several U.S. locations. He is quite friendly and I tell him about Tennessee and meeting Chuchi at the American English Institute a few nights ago. He tells me that several girls should be here shortly and they will practice for a short time, but then Chuchi will be taking a bus to B.A. to play in some exhibitions this weekend with the Argentina Junior National Team.
4:15 P.M. A few girls arrive, and I am informed that is all that is coming. It is the off season and only the more dedicated and really good players work out now. Coach Corgneil tells me Chuchi is "a very good player. The best (female) we have ever had here." The coach who is now working with the girls comes over and Ricardo introduces us. He is Victor Eancilleri, who speaks no English at all. He is very friendly though, especially when he learns that I speak a little Spanish and that we were both shortstops in our youth. Like Ricardo, he is also about early forties in age.
He puts the girls through a variety of drills and then readies to hit ground balls around the infield. He has no first baseman though and invites me to play first base for infield drills, which I'm pleased to do. Chuchi is so good, everyone else is a child next to this "little woman." She is 5'9" tall, seventy kilos (about 154 pounds), with a medium build and well muscled body. She moves fluidly in all directions, staying low on the ball, coming up quick, and firing the ball hard to first. She makes several off balance throws, showing superior arm strength. She works routinely at both third and short.
Coach Corgneil had told me she is superior at third, short, or outfield, and has even pitched at times. The National Team uses her mostly at third and she bats fourth or cleanup. Victor tells me she hits the ball with power wherever it is pitched, and has hit homers to all parts of the field. She hit two in the World Series last year in Chicago, at the age of fourteen, in a tourney that goes to age eighteen! I am told she will complete secondary (high) school at the age of sixteen and a half. She attends Escuela Normal Superior Jose Mario Torres, where she is a good student, her grades all in the nineties. Only one mother is at the practice, but it is Chuchi's, so I'm introduced briefly. She speaks no English and seems very shy, however, so our conversation is simply a short hello. Watching her swing, one can see where Chuchi's power comes from. She has both strong legs and a strong upper body, evident even in her baggy blue sweats on this chilly day. She holds her right elbow high, bat cocked back by her right ear. She has a closed stance and takes only a short step with her left leg in leading her quick compact swing. Even during simple tee and net drills, she hits the ball hard. Even to the untrained eye she is talented for one so young, and my eye is not untrained. She has a spirit to her that leads others.
After practice we talk briefly as she writes down her address and asks me to send her some brochures about Tennessee. I tell her I'll be sending some materials to the Directora of the American English Institute at the Directora's request, and she can get some of those materials from Senora Gambelin at the English school if she wishes to. I also tell her that I can't write her directly, or get involved with her personally, due to U.S. recruiting rules, but will give the address to our head softball coach, Jim Beatia, who will write her about the program if he wishes to. I thank her coach for his time and say goodbye to him and Senora Torres. Chuchi and I kiss on both cheeks with a friendly "ciao." I leave thinking she is a very special ballplayer and person, and hoping to see her again one day.
5:45 P.M. I start the three and a half mile walk back to the hotel, not stopping until I get to the American English Institute except for purchasing another bottle of water at a small kiosco. At the AEI, Senora Gambelin is in doing some paperwork, so we speak for a few minutes. I again mention the possibility of student exchange with Tennessee, particularly with the College of Education, as she is also the Director of PNS, the teacher training institution. This idea is very exciting to her and I promise her to have the appropriate people at Tennessee contact her after my return, either from the College of Education or from the Center for International Education. We talk about how this would be a great Spanish-English opportunity for both institutions, and she mentions they really like home stay programs for their student exchanges. Again, I echo my thanks for all her assistance, remind her I'll be sending her some materials about Tennessee, and that I hope to see her again one day. She says, "Adios. Don't forget us." I assure her that won't happen as I go out the door.
6:45 P.M. It is dark by the time I reach the Plaza Primero de Mayo and I've walked about nine miles today. Though tired, it is my last night here, so I check out all the vendors wares carefully for possible purchases. I buy a "Viva Parana" tee shirt and cambio a vendor a Tennessee sweatshirt for a carving I like made from the bark of a local palmetto.
7:30 P.M. I drop everything in my hotel room and head out for my last night of te in Parana, going to my favorite place, "GAIA Cafeteria." They all know me now, so I receive several cheery "holas" when I walk in. I order my favorite "Te con leche GAIA." The owner and one waitress, now off duty, come over and we talk briefly about Tennessee, Parana, and my impressions. I tell them I'm going to Santa Fe in the morning and will miss their te, that they have "the best te I've ever had." This comment brings smiles all around, of course. I savor my last cup while writing some field notes before saying goodbye at 8:30 P.M. and starting the walk back to the hotel. I am a bit worn out now.
As I walk back, I notice the Indians are now working on their "structure." They seem to do very little in the day, but start to work in late afternoon or in the evening. They have now enclosed about the front forty feet, sides and roof, in clear plastic sheeting, and eight vendors have moved in! I ask a passerby if this was a special event about to happen but he tells me this is what the vendors do every winter because of the cold and the winds. They are now stringing up lights in the structure! Well, I've seen all their wares, so I head back to the hotel to get organized for leaving in the morning.
9:00 P.M. As I arrive back at the hotel I remember the U.S.A. versus Argentina, Copa America futbol game, is on television tonight and the hotel proprietor has invited me to join him in the lobby to watch. As I sit down to watch, there are in the lobby: the owner, me, and three other Argentineans who are staying at the hotel. It is a real good game. The first half ends with the Argentina team dominating play and getting more "batidos" than the U.S., but somehow the U.S.A. team leads 2-0! Everyone is very surprised, including me! The others all kid me about sleeping in the street if the U.S.A. team wins, but it is all in good fun. They all believe their team will come back in the second half. Early in the second half though, the U.S.A. team scores to take a 3-0 lead and I say "juego es sobre!" The game is over! All are shocked, including me. "Incredible. Juego magnifico." I perform a little "Olay, olay, olay. Olay, ola, Estados Unidos," dance in the lobby as they all laugh at me. They are all surprised, but take the defeat in good spirits as we all say goodnight and head for our rooms. It is 11:05 P.M.
7:45 A.M. I'm up and moving early for me today. I shower, dress, pack, and am out of the hotel my 8:30 A.M. "Gramps" is at the front desk and we are both sorry I'm leaving. He looks like he is about to shed a tear or two, with a blanket wrapped around his shoulders in the cold morning air. I tell him, "Senor is un bueno hombre." He laughs and says, "Dos bueno hombres" as we shake hands and then both wave with a "adios" as I go down the steps and out the entrance door.
It is cool and misty as I begin the walk to the bus station.
The Indians have progressed no further from last night except to move two benches inside the structure, on which two men are now sleeping under layers of clothes and blankets. I am feeling very sad about leaving Parana, but I've gone over and over in my mind all of the possibilities to observe here and staying longer seems to make no sense at this time. The hotel is mainly just "Gramps" and me, and I have trouble following his rapid Spanish. Parana Normal School and the American English Institute are both now closed for the winter break. Softball is out of season and Chuchi has gone to B.A. Club Ken, GAIA, or other retail locations are quite small and I would be in the way at any of them. The plaza vendors move around regularly and are not in the same place every day. Other ideas require more fluent Spanish than I possess at present. Mentally, I am confident I'm doing what I need to do.
As I walk toward the bus terminal, many shopkeepers are sweeping or washing the walk in front of their shop as it is still early. One has to be somewhat careful when walking early in the day as the wet walks can be slippery, especially if it's a day when the shopkeeper is using a "soapy" mix to clean. The weather continues to change, going from cool to warm to dry to mist to cold, all during my walk of just over a mile to the bus terminal! There are several drawings on the sidewalk I notice, with the words, "Arte para todos," "Art for all," written next to them.
As I walk, I think also about the two men I saw living under a bridge near the softball stadium. Their horse and cart for garbage pickup was with them, the horse grazing in the field by the bridge. They had a small fire going high on the slope under the bridge, the warmest, most protected spot. Their clothes were filthy and wretched, and it was a very sad sight. They looked at me as I walked by with the eyes of slaves long whipped and broken by the nature of their circumstances. No other life for them is possible anymore. I had no fear as I walked by them, however, only sadness. I can say I've never experienced even a second of fear at any time on my excursion so far, and I've walked in many areas, rico y pobre. The only exception was perhaps the two blocks in Paysandu, Uruguay, leading to my hotel that were pure blackness; but that was not a fear of Uruguay as much as simply the fear of the small boy in me running from the dark unknown. Had my great grandfather joined his "hermano" here in Argentina, I would have been happy. True, I may not have had the opportunities I've had in the U.S., but this is a good land and good people. Certainly, my Spanish would be better! I wonder if I would have studied English?
8:55 A.M. I arrive at the bus station and purchase a ticket for the next bus, scheduled for 9:10 A.M. The ticket only costs $2.30 U.S. for the twenty kilometer ride to Santa Fe. I'm assigned asiento ventana 13V, the third time this trip I've come up with a thirteen. It's a good thing I'm not superstitious! I check my bag and get on what is an older, more well-used, commuter bus, but still clean and reasonably comfortable as I settle into my seat and stare out the window to take in all I still can of Parana and its people. Suddenly, I see my brother Stewart at the bus station. Mi hermano! My siblings and I have always kidded him about looking like the "Frito Bandito," with his long hair and mustache, but this man is speaking Spanish y no es mi hermano. I still wonder if he is a relative as the bus pulls out on time, but only half full. It is raining lightly as we leave the terminal.
I'm taken by surprise as the bus makes stops throughout the city. It turns out the Parana -Santa Fe run is like a regular bus route in that it makes stops along the way. I recognize all the streets on the route as I've walked them all! As we pass the softball stadium, heading into the Tunel Subfluvial Hernandarias, I watch the raindrops, but see only the falling tears of those who have had to leave Parana behind. I feel sad and uncomfortable, the discomfort of one who feels they have left something behind; perhaps it is a piece of my heart as the bus enters the tunnel and Parana is gone.
9:30 A.M. The tunnel itself is a miracle and speaks for the spirit of the people of Parana and Santa Fe. It is a long tunnel, two point four kilometers, under the Rio Parana which separates the two respective cities and provinces. It is also a monument to the stupidity of large central government. According to Argentina law only the federal government can build a bridge between provinces, so when Entre Rios and Santa Fe wished to do so, the federal government refused them permission! However, the provinces found a loophole in that there was no law against tunnels, so that is how the sixty million dollar tunnel came to opening in 1969. On the Santa Fe side, there are several bridges leading up to the main channel of the Rio Parana. Santa Fe is several miles back from the main channel and actually fronts on several tributaries of the Rio Parana. It is raining still as we come out of the tunnel on the Santa Fe side and the windshield wipers on the bus are squeaking loudly, they too protesting our leaving Parana behind.
Santa Fe is @ 500,000 people compared to @ 200,000 in Parana, and the same charm Parana has is not evident here. My "survival" Spanish has survived so far and is getting a little better each day, but the farther I travel from Buenos Aires the more foreign and strange it all seems.
We pull in the Santa Fe bus terminal and, as I've learned well by now, the first thing I do is check the options to leave town. One wants to avoid an unnecessary trip back to the bus terminal to check schedules, and you can't routinely phone the bus company for information as in the U.S. I check my options for Corrientes or Posadas, as I work my way north to Chaco, Corrientes, or Misiones Provinces. Many buses in South America are designed as "sleepers" and one travels overnight on long trips, leaving from late P.M. to very early A.M. and arriving at their destination the next morning. This is great to save money on a hotel, but doesn't work for one who wishes to see the countryside as I do. I want to travel by day in a "asiento ventana." It seemed Corrientes or Resistencia were my only choices for a daylight bus. They are only a few kilometers apart from each other, north of here but again across the Rio Parana from each other.
I haven't made any decision as to when I'll leave Santa Fe or exactly what I can see here at this time of year, so I decide to visit the "Oficina de Turismo," located here inside the bus terminal. They inform me the sights I most wish to see, those associated with local Indian tribes, are not available now. The village built in the river on "sticks" is not "in season" as it is too cold in the winter. I'm told they will rebuild in spring. I try to inquire as to where the residents have gone, but they don't seem to understand my question.
11:00 A.M. I walk out of the bus terminal looking for a room for tonight. My guide book states there is an acceptable
hotel right across the street, the Hotel Bristol. I walk in, see a room, and take it for $18.00 U.S. It is quite small, but clean and with a "privado bano." The senora at the front desk is quite amiable and I immediately like her. I take the room for only one night now, but tell her I'll let her know in the morning if I decide to stay longer. I settle my belongings in my room, and by 11:30 A.M. I'm off to see the city of Santa Fe. I have previously mapped out a round trip of @ four miles to see the important local historical sites and wander the San Martin peatonal. We will see how it goes.
It is cold, with a heavy mist now in the air, and generally miserable weather. I can't just sit in a small hotel room and do nothing when traveling, however, so I bundle up and bear it, starting down the local peatonal. I spend little time looking in store windows as I'm not in the mood for window shopping today, and the shops look much like Parana anyway, except Parana is nicer. The peatonal here is only half the size of Parana's, though Santa Fe is more than twice as large!
Remembering that I haven't eaten yet, I stop for te and a sandwich at "Cafe de la Ciudad." Bad choice. The service is very slow, even for Argentina, and I'm served a tiny, overpriced, ham and cheese sandwich on very thin bread. I've seen this bread often in restaurants, but have never ordered any. I guess I did this time! The bread is thinner than the wafers one receives at communion, but is served without the wine or grape juice that makes it palatable. The small amount only leaves you hungry and wanting more. Bread this thin should at least come with a little vino and a blessing.
2:00 P.M. I leave the restaurant and head toward the sights of supposed historical or architectural interest. I'm walking toward the Casa de Gobierno, trying to read my map in the rain and mist, not watching closely where I'm walking. As I've mentioned earlier, dogs and "doo" are common here, and one of my fears is about to happen. I step in a large pile of nice, fresh, wet, caramel colored, doggie doo! I do not have to look down to know. A normal breath will suffice. I'm wearing my only shoes, as I tore my other pair on something sharp in Montevideo and left them in a wastebasket in the hotel there. It is 2:30 P.M. as I find a place to sit, grab a small part of a broken tree limb, and go to work. I keep a roll of toilet paper in my backpack when I travel, in case of an encounter with the unequipped bano, but now it comes in handy for other things. The "doo" is very wet and messy, but I clean the shoe fairly well, and then walk one block to a fountain in a plaza and clean some more. It is 3:15 P.M. before I start out again to see the sights.
There are several I briefly visit, but then see one that is so important and so awe inspiring, the others no longer seem to matter. That one is the "Convento y Museo de San Francisco," built in 1680. The churches walls were more than a meter thick, supporting a stunning roof of Paraguayan Cedar and hardwood. The whole of the interior is so beautiful as to defy any description I could possibly give. Local persons of importance have been buried in the floor and walls. The museum attached to the church is filled with antique art treasures and a lovely garden covers the courtyard that separates the church, museum, and convent wings. I am not a Catholic, but I've always admired the "art" of the church, in its buildings, interiors and decor. This could be the only place to see in all of Santa Fe, and it would be worth the trip. I've been to the Vatican and, in its own way, this is its equal. I lose all track of time, spending several hours here. I stop at a few other sights, but find it hard to get my mind off the "Convento y Museo de San Francisco."
As I head back toward the bus terminal, I stop briefly at the main tent of the circus in town to inquire about the price, but decide the ten dollars they want for admission is too expensive for my budget. I then walk on to the bus terminal to purchase a ticket for Corrientes tomorrow morning. I have no reason to stay in Santa Fe now. I've seen the best the city has to offer. The weather is miserable and the same is predicted for tomorrow, a good day to travel. I book another "ventana asiento" and find out we'll be leaving from Gate #13. There's that number again!
7:00 P.M. Back at the hotel, I ask their recommendation regarding dinner at one of the several little restaurants in the area. They suggest two, and I make the short walk to one for dinner, deciding to enjoy some "blanco vino" tonight instead of my usual te. It is time I sample the supposedly fine wines of Argentina. The wine is good, but overall it is a routine dinner. I love the "Convento y Museo de San Francisco," but otherwise do not feel particularly good about Santa Fe. Perhaps it is because I like Parana so much that whatever immediately follows has to pale, perhaps it is the weather, perhaps it is simply Santa Fe, perhaps something of each. In any case, I've made the decision to leave.
Leaving the restaurant, I stop briefly at a newsstand to read the local headlines. The front page shows a picture of last night’s USA vs. Argentina futbol game with the words, "Noche Negra," in large print, and in smaller print, "No goales vs. EE.UU.!! Incredible!!" They are very upset here about their futbol loss to the USA team. Argentina, Brazil and Italy are the world powers of futbol, and none of them had ever lost to a USA team before now. They are embarrassed and the coaches job is now in jeopardy. The Argentinean pride has suffered immensely.
8:20 P.M. I arrive back at my room, change to my nightwear, and take my shoes into the bathroom for a good cleaning. They are filthy from the dirt, dust, and doggie doo of my travels. They were brand new when I left Knoxville. It takes thirty minutes over the sink, scrubbing with soap and water, before I'm satisfied that is all I can do. I place them on the floor to dry, hoping they'll look presentable in the morning. My fingers are quite cold and stiff from the water as I sit down to write and read for a while.
It is 10:00 P.M. by the time I decide to call it a day. I'm quite tired. The wind is howling outside, so I know the night, and subsequently the room, will be cold. I have put all three blankets in the room on the bed before crawling in. There is a real cold draft in the room though, and the sole window is rattling. I always carry some kind of masking type tape when traveling for emergencies, however, so I now dig it out of my luggage. I find where the draft is and go to work, taping over it and around the window in general. It's not perfect, but it helps a lot as I crawl back under the three wool blankets.
8:00 A.M. I stayed relatively warm in bed but now, as I arise, the room is freezing. I miss carpeted floors as the concrete is ice. Sitting on the "john," it seems similar to ice fishing naked in Minnesota! At least that is the image that fills my head. I debate whether to take a shower in such cold, but the bano is clean and who knows about tomorrow, so I go for it. The water is not hot, but warm enough to make it okay.
9:00 A.M. I'm dressed, relatively clean again, and packed. My shoes have dried and look quite presentable as I leave the hotel. The sky is still gray and air quite cold as I go out for breakfast, stopping a half block away at the "Super Grill Santa Fe." It is the same place I dined last night and the only restaurant around open at the moment. It is a Sunday, and one takes whatever they can find on a Sunday, particularly in the A.M. I have hot yerba mate and dos medias lunas. The breakfast is very good, much better than dinner last night. There are only two other tables occupied, one with a man and two small boys waiting to catch a bus at the terminal, and the other with two old men discussing the events of the day over cafe. The man with the children is quiet except for a comment to the children here and there. The old men are very talkative, with animated hands and bodies. All are dressed warmly. The only visible employee this morning, a man about age sixty, appears to be both cook and waiter. He is formal but friendly. I sip mate and enjoy my breakfast, thinking about the seven hour bus ride ahead and some of the events of yesterday.
As I listen to the old men I think about language, its beauty and its harshness. Spanish can be so harsh when you do not understand, and you need to know and are confused. Spanish is so beautiful when you understand most of what is said, it is animated, and flows from the heart. I imagine it must be the same for speakers and non-speakers of all languages. This morning the old men are beautiful and I enjoy their music. Speaking of music, the background music in the restaurant is again American. It amazes me that about seventy-five percent of the background music in this country appears to be American. Few speak the language, but they all listen to American music and wear clothing with American words on them! The words on the clothing, as often as not, are in bad English and do not make sense to most Americans. It is interesting and amusing. Young people sing words to songs without any idea of the meaning except for international words of love and sex and peace and fuck you. Es poco loco!!
I leave the restaurant and stop briefly at a kiosco a few doors away to get some cookies and crackers to go with the bottle of water I still have in my backpack. It will be a long bus ride today and I don't know when and where we will stop. 10:00 A.M. I'm at the bus terminal, still freezing my butt, literally! The metal benches at the terminal are real cold. The terminal, as usual, is not heated and most of the doors stay open with people coming and going. It doesn't seem to matter though. It's cold inside and it's cold outside! Reading the papers, the coldest it's been on my adventure so far was 34 degrees Fahrenheit that night in Paysandu, and the warmest 74 degrees Fahrenheit one afternoon in Parana. A big range. When the sun drops here, the temperature drops dramatically, and you don't want to be caught without a "jacquita." For now, I pull out my field notes and write a little to try to take my mind off the cold while waiting. 10:30 A.M. My butt is still freezing! I wonder if these benches ever warm up, even in summer? I decide to take out my guidebook, put on the gloves I purchased for U.S. three dollars in Montevideo, and read more about where I'm off to next, trying to keep my mind off the cold any way I can.
11:35 A.M. The bus pulls up to load and the passengers gather accordingly, the attendant helping to load luggage. I've learned the second person on the bus is not a "conductor" like on a train, but an "attendant" like on an airline. I discover my window seat is very comfortable with a large window for my viewing pleasure. My pleasant thoughts are shattered when a young mother with a small crying baby sits down next to me. Oh, no! I pray I don't have a crying baby next to me for a seven hour bus ride. We pull out of the terminal, about three minutes early, when the attendant comes back and offers mother and baby a seat elsewhere, near the back, where there is a vacant double seat with more room. She accepts, and I breathe a sigh of relief. The attendant then hands out pillows and I sit back, relax, and prepare to enjoy the view. The seats recline, with foot rests for additional comfort. The windows have thick drapes that many draw in order to sleep, but I prefer to look out and see all I can.
11:55 A.M. The sun has come out and there is now only scattered clouds. I'm still wearing my jacket as I enjoy the warmth of the sun through the window. It feels very good. The countryside appears mostly flat, farm country, with only scattered trees. We pass a small village here and there. In the very few places where the land has not been cleared, the low brush, four to six feet tall, appears very thick and rough looking; what the guide book calls the "chaco," or "the impenetrable." The attendant has placed a movie in the VCR. I missed the title, but it is about East German Nazis in the U.S., speaking in English, but with Spanish subtitles. Truly an international film!
1:55 P.M. We stop at San Justo, just over 100 kilometers from Santa Fe, as the attendant announces a lunch break. We are at the "Toro Restaurante." Although I'm not really hungry, everyone else goes in to eat and I feel obligated to also do so. I order Ravioles con Tuco for $3.50, plus a $1.00 "cubierto," or cover charge! It is a nice looking restaurant, with a large thatched roof outside, and waiters in white jackets with black bow ties inside. My waiter was not tolerant of my pobre Espanol, however, and most usually are.
2:00 P.M. We are back on the road, with still over 450 kilometers to my destination. The sky is now all blue with the temperature near sixty Fahrenheit as we depart the restaurant. Continuing north, the view remains that of relatively flat farms, with only a slight increase in the number of trees. The bus moves along slowly, averaging less than fifty miles per hour. Soon the baby starts crying for about ten minutes, and I'm so pleased the attendant moved them; plus I have more room to stretch out. I'm full from lunch and it is difficult to not take a siesta, so I do close my eyes for short periods. The view changes little whenever I open them.
3:35 P.M. Awake, I'm noticing more brush now, but it is not real thick and there are cattle grazing in it. Small marshy areas are evident occasionally, with a thin kelly green growth of some kind evident on the pond areas. I notice more and more sandy soil and palmetto type trees also. The cattle come in a wide variety of breeds and colors. Soon I see the first scattered large cactus of my trip, tall "hot dog" clump style cactus. I also notice the electrical and telephone wires have a variety of sharp barbed attachments on them, apparently to prevent large numbers of birds from clustering on them.
4:40 P.M. The bus attendant hands out a snack of saltine crackers, vanilla wafers, three pieces of candy, and a little pack of dehydrated milk, all in a Styrofoam tray wrapped in clear plastic. I'm not sure what to do with the milk, but I eat the rest. It is all very sweet, and I'm glad I have my bottled water to cleanse the pallet afterwards. The attendant also places another video in the VCR, again in English with Spanish subtitles. It is titled, "The Program," a movie about American football. I'd seen it before and I found the subtitles amusing, since I know American football very well.
6:00 P.M. It is now dark and I can see nothing except that it is still flat out there. I have been reading about Resistencia and Corrientes in my guidebook. They are twin cities, across the Rio Parana from each other. I have a ticket to Corrientes, the further of the two, but have decided to get off at Resistencia, reportedly the nicer of the two; plus Resistencia has better connections to Posadas, which is really my next planned destination. The guide book also claims the Corrientes bus terminal is far from town and the Resistencia terminal is located in the center of town, near the inexpensive hotels. This turns out to be both good and bad information.
7:30 P.M. The bus arrives at Resistencia and I choose to get off. Bad news! It turns out the terminal is brand new, just opened, and is no longer in the center of the city, but far out on the edge of town! It takes a cab ride to get to town. Good news! This is a very large, modern, magnificent terminal, with many connections! I find a connection to Posadas leaving at midnight, now only four hours away, and scheduled to arrive in Posadas at 5:30 A.M. The bus company is also running a special to there for "estudiantes universidad" at just U.S. $13.00. I purchase a ticket, deciding I'll sleep on the bus and spend a night or two in Posadas before traveling on to Puerto Iguazu. It will be a bit tiring, but will help my budget situation. I'll have breakfast in Posadas and then find an inexpensive hotel.
9:00 P.M. I'm sitting on a white plastic chair in the Resistencia bus terminal, writing a few notes and just watching the people. There are plenty to watch as this is a busy terminal. I've just had a Pepsi Max and some cookies from one of the many shops in the terminal. The terminal is an open air style, a real high roof, but no walls or doors anywhere except on the restrooms and many of the shops for their individual security. My chair is cold, but not as bad as the aluminum benches in Santa Fe this morning. Everything in northern Argentina seemingly is built for the intense heat they experience most of the year, and they just struggle through the few months of winter as best they can. I have to remind myself that July is their January and as cold as it gets - but no snow or ice!
Sitting now at one of the food stands, enjoying some hot te, I am thinking a bit. I've noticed in my bus travels that the provinces here are very independent, and actually have policia at their provincial borders on the main roads. You stop for them, even though going through appears to be routine. At the Chaco border, several actually got on the bus and looked around! This is all one country, but there is strong regional identification here. Very different. I like this terminal though. They are actually playing Spanish rock on the speaker system and not American for a change. That's a nice background to me, as I sit and write for a while in my field notes. I'm writing so much my notebook is starting to fall apart from overuse! Nothing else to do but wait for now.
12:38 A.M. The bus for Posadas pulls out of the terminal late. It arrived late and we didn't board until near 12:30 A.M. The bus driver, a man of about sixty, questions me about my student discount ticket. I guess he can't believe an old man like me is a student! We have trouble communicating for several minutes until I finally figure out what he is questioning me about. I then show him my university identification, and he checks it thoroughly before letting me on the bus. Once on, I have a nice window seat again, but don't really expect to see anything this time. Though there will probably be a few stops in small towns along the route, it will be night all the way to Posadas. Shortly after we leave, it appears all the passengers are sleeping, so I try to do so also. I've two seats to myself for now.
I awake @ 3:00 A.M. to the sound of hard rain on the bus roof and windows, and again @ 3:30 A.M. when I discover I'm getting wet! The area around my window is leaking somewhere, and I'm getting some steady drops falling on me. I hear the bus stop and start occasionally, but pay little attention in my half asleep state. Once a man got on, woke me, and sat next to me, but then soon got off someplace.
6:30 A.M. We arrive at the Posadas bus terminal an hour behind schedule, but that is actually a good thing for me, as it is now close to daylight. Posadas is another totally outdoor bus terminal, with only a few cold, hard, concrete benches. I remember to immediately check my options for going on to Puerto Iguazu. There are quite a few choices as Puerto Iguazu is a popular local and tourist destination. It is 7:15 P.M. by the time I set off to find a hotel. There are several choices within a few blocks and I choose one for $20.00 a day within fifteen minutes. The room is dark and gloomy, but clean with a privado bano again. I'm quite tired, so I take a short one hour nap after unpacking.
8:30 A.M. I get up from my nap, throw some water on my face, some Visine in my eyes, and I'm off towards central Posadas and the Plaza San Martin. There seems to be a Plaza San Martin in every town! I pass the "Rod Shop," with the large face of Rod Stewart on the front done in pink! Cute! The street signs are very large and clear on the main streets, and that is always a help in finding ones way around. This town is smaller and older than other ones I've visited, so the architecture is more traditional.
9:00 A.M. I stop at an open bank to change more U.S. dollars to Argentina pesos. I try, but still can't get rid of the Uruguayan pesos I have. I pass the local teatro and take a moment to look inside. It is very small overall, small room, small stage, sits maybe two hundred overall on folding chairs. Next I visit the Tourist Office on the Plaza San Martin and flirt for a few minutes with the two senoritas working there, but it turns out they are both senoras! We had a few minutes of friendly fun kidding around though. I ask about taking the bus to Encarcion, Paraguay, just across the Rio Parana from here. It is supposedly an excellent place for very inexpensive shopping. They direct me to a bus stop just across the Plaza where I can catch the International Bus for just two dollars. I walk over there and board one after just a few minutes wait.
I'm now worried about how I entered Argentina with the "cinco amigos" though. Unfortunately, it soon turns out I am right to worry. At the border, I explain to Argentina immigracion what happened and they say, "Bueno," and wave me through. The bus crosses a long bridge over the Rio Parana and I'm physically in Paraguay, but now must face Paraguayan immigracion, who are very document oriented.
10:00 A.M. I first face one authority who objects to the fact that I have no salida (exit stamp) from Argentina. I tell him I couldn't get a salida as I had no entrada (entrance stamp) to Argentina, and try to explain to him why, but he doesn't care. I'm passed to another male official whom I again explain my story to, but he doesn't seem to care either. I am now passed to a third and fourth man who don't care either. I want an entrada to Paraguay, and all they care about is that I have no salida from Argentina. No salida, no entrada. They tell me to go back to Argentina and get a salida, so I catch a bus returning to the Argentinean side. I meet with an Argentina immigracion official who won't give me a salida either because I have no entrada, despite my explanation and several minutes of pleading. I'm passed to a second man who says the same. I'm then taken to a woman official in a small office who tells me I'm not even allowed in Argentina at present because I have no salida from Paraguay, and no entrada from anywhere else! I'm apparently stuck on the bridge, no one wanting me!
10:30 A.M. I show her my hotel key and explain my room is in Posadas. She doesn't care and keeps saying something about one hundred dollars, sounding like a necessary bribe to me. I'm protesting quite strongly, when my guardian angel walked into the room. I never did find out her name, but she was Angel to me! Angel was about fifty years old, a brunette about 5'7" tall, and spoke Spanish, German and English. She seems to quite clearly know the "system" and her way around it. She asked me to explain to her my situation in English, and I do, telling her the entire story about the "cinco amigos" and the border guards.
Angel then explains all this to the immigracion official in Spanish, who replies she can do nothing about it but perhaps the office of immigracion in Posadas can assist me. The official writes down the address of this office and hands it to Angel who asks me if I can find it okay. I tell her I'm sure that I can, thank her, and head out to catch the bus to town. As I wait by the bus stop, Angel pulls up in a little white car with a driver and waves to me to get in. I jump in the back and she says they will take me to the office to make sure I have no further problems. I am thrilled.
10:45 A.M. We arrive at the office of "Ministerio del Interior, Direccion National de Migraciones, Delagacion Misiones." I find Angel knows all the right people as she tells me to follow her, and we walk right in the door and directly back to the office of the man in charge, stopping for no one. Angel explains to him what my situation is, and asks me to explain it again, in English, to the Minister as he speaks English also. I think I have the only two residents of Posadas who speak English right here in this room!
After explaining the situation, the Minister asks me if I still want to go into Paraguay today. I tell him that doesn't matter to me and I would just be happy if I could get my entrada stamp into Argentina so I can be one hundred percent legal with all authorities again. He informed me he had no authority to give me a regular ninety day tourist entrada, but could give me a ten day stamp to solve my problem. I reply that would be wonderful as I'll be leaving Argentina for Paraguay within ten days anyway. He tells me that if I want to come back after entering Paraguay, just enter again as a normal tourist, getting my entrada at the border. That sounded great to me!
The minister was also about my age and we then chat a few minutes about our children, the Minister having five. He also informs me the particular border station to Paraguay where I tried to enter is a strict one for paperwork, as it is staffed by both immigracion and military authorities. The two factions do not like or trust each other, so each watches the other for any failure to follow policy. Meanwhile, Angel says goodbye to both of us, and I thank her profusely as she leaves. The Minister and I then talk futbol for a few minutes as he places the entrada stamp in my passport, and then escorts me to the front door. I am very grateful to him as I leave the office.
11:00 A.M. I'm standing outside, reading the information on the office window, when I discover they are only open from seven to eleven A.M. on Monday through Friday. If not for Angel I'd have gotten here too late today and would have had to come tomorrow morning and hope for the best without her. Then I realize I don't know the name of either the Minister or my Angel!! Wherever you are, my Angel, thank you, thank you, thank you. I will never bypass any border guards again. Paraguay can wait. I decide not to face any more immigracion officials for now, and I'm staying in Posadas for the day.
I head first to visit the "Ciudad Mercado," consisting of many crowded stalls in an old dinghy building, and small wooden stalls of individual merchants for several blocks outside. Wandering the mercado, I cambio the old sweater I'm wearing, and am now tired of, for a large mate gourd and holder. I discover also that I'm near the river here, so I walk down to the Posadas "Yacht Club" and take a few pictures of the bridge I'll certainly never forget! 1:35 P.M. I'm hungry and stop for lunch at a small pasta place near Plaza 9 de Julio. I enjoy some tallerines with tomato sauce and a cup of hot te. The television set in the corner reports it is now sixty-eight degrees outside, so the day that started out cold, gray and wet is till gray, but has warmed up quite a bit.
As I leave the restaurant at 2:10 P.M., it is turning cold again! I walk to Plaza 9 de Julio to visit the merchant stalls there, and by 2:40 P.M. it is raining again, coming down fairly hard for fifteen minutes as I stand under a canvas roof in an empty vendors stall. When the rain lets up some, I decide to wander the various shops of the city, slowly working my way back toward my hotel and the bus terminal area. I rest for a while on a dry bench and write a little in my field notes, then wander in and out of several more shops. I purchase another notebook in one shop, as my current notebook is nearing full. Later I get some drinkable yogurt in a small groceria. It is a very leisurely walk overall.
5:00 P.M. I'm finally back at the bus terminal, discovering it is an absolute zoo, as confusing as any I've visited. There are no marked lanes, and the buses park anywhere, seemingly fighting for space. People crowd the small individual bus company windows to buy tickets, and then crowd to get on their bus. I prefer to avoid traveling in the dark, but don't like to reach my destination so late in the day that the best inexpensive hotels are filled. The perfect bus for me is one leaving at 8:00 A.M., but it is full. My choices are either 4:30 A.M. or 11:30 A.M., so I decide on the 4:30 one so as to get to Puerto Iguazu early in the day. I purchase my "ventana asciento," getting a student discount again, and learning I'll arrive about 10:00 A.M. in Puerto Iguazu. It means getting up at 3:00 A.M., but such is the hazards of bus travel.
6:00 A.M. I'm back at the hotel and am busy repacking my things. I have picked up a few breakables that I need to now protect. That is done by 7:00 P.M. and I'm going to bed. I need to be up early and I only had a few good hours of sleep last night. It's been an interesting day. Crazy weather! Crazy bus rides! Crazy immigracion! Sweet Angel! Crazy day!
3:00 A.M. My alarm goes off and I'm out of bed, take a quick shower, dress, and walk to the bus terminal, sitting on a bench there waiting for my bus by 4:00 A.M. There are only three passengers on the bus as we pull out of the terminal on time. We stop several times along the route, I think, but I'm mostly asleep. I remember only looking at my watch about 6:30 A.M. at one stop.
7:30 A.M. I finally wake up for the day as it is now light, though foggy, and I can see the countryside. The flora is much heavier now, and quite thick in some spots along the road. It has gotten much hillier and the bus has to change gears often. The bus speeds downhill until the speedometer passes ninety-five kilometers and the "Limit de Velocidad" light above the drivers head comes on, and then the bus slows down considerably going uphill. The soil appears to be more red clay based now.
It is 7:45 A.M. when I see the town of Monte Carlo "Direccion de Turismo," a little beehive shaped hut by the side of the road with a door, table and candle inside, and staffed by a sole male. Why is he even open so early? Very strange site. The sky remains gray and the weather damp, but the day is brightened by the more tropical flora I'm seeing, including occasional red or orange flowers near the road. The streets of Monte Carlo are red clay and stone, with more brick casas than I've seen in other towns. The homes have small, neat, lawns with plastic ornaments of ducks, chickens, geese and penguins on them! Six people get on the bus at Monte Carlo, and I figure out we have been picking people up and dropping them off all along the route.
I've often seen what looks like American style water heaters in various shops throughout the country, but with a faucet near the top. Sometimes they are small, square, table top versions. I've been curious about them, but up until now just assumed they were the South American version of a regular water heater. I finally figure out there is more to it when I notice the bus attendant run into a little shop and fill the thermos bottle that he and the driver have been using for their mate. It is South America's way of always having hot water available for their national drink, mate! I ask the attendant about it a little later, and he tells me that is correct. You push a button near the top of the heater, and the little faucet fills your thermos. Signs on the side of them say "Agua Caliente" or "Yerba Mate." That's how the system works, sort of like a water cooler in reverse! It cost a dollar each time to fill your thermos. How original and creative! I can't help but admire the concept.
8:05 A.M. As we continue on down the road, I notice the driver has vertical blinds on the front which he pulls down to cover the entire windshield when the sun is too bright for him. He watches the road through the slats and keeps on driving! Very strange to an American. I see a sign now that says 116 kilometers to Puerto Iguazu. We are stopping often now for passengers, and twice the attendant refills their mate thermos. The driver and the attendant have been sharing mate the entire trip. Everything is very green now and I'm seeing why "all the greens" is the slogan of the Entre Rios provinces. I notice quite a few lumber yards and signs of clear cutting forests, and that disturbs me some. Riding a bus that makes a lot of stops is bad in that it is so slow, but good in that one gets to see a bit of many normally out of the way places.
It is 8:40 A.M. when we stop at El Dorado and the attendant announces a ten minute break for "daysundo" (breakfast). I have "Pepitos" and some of my bottled water. There are fifteen passengers now as we leave the El Dorado terminal, the "Kiosco America" just across the street. As we drive on, I'm surprised by the number of toll roads we encounter, especially since the highways are virtually all two lane except in very rare circumstances around only the largest cities. Yet "tarifas" are commonly collected. One sees boys shouting and selling "Dario" (the daily paper) at bus terminals and other spots in every town. There are so many paperboys; my guess is there is no home delivery.
9:10 A.M. It starts to rain again as a sign reads seventy-nine kilometers to Puerto Iguazu. I'm seeing more colorful flowers as we continue north. At the moment, the area reminds me of Oregon, where I've once lived, with lots of green, damp and misty, and plenty of colorful flora. I'm liking it quite a lot. Many of the towns we pass through appear obviously poor, however. In the village of Libertad, I see a sign, "Biblioteca," (library) on a wooden shack that looks like it will fall down any moment. I wonder about the actual books inside? It is in Libertad, though, I discover what the road sign, "Loma de Burro," means. It is what America calls a "speed bump," but what Argentina calls a "back of burro!"
As we leave Libertad, there is a little girl about ten years old sitting with her mother behind me and coughing badly. I give her one of my Hall's Cough Drops from my backpack and her mother smiles broadly at me. They get off a few minutes later. There are now only a few people on the bus for the last forty kilometers or so, and I'm the only one sitting up in the front, actually right in the front row. The attendant and the driver both are now in regular conversation with me and we have come to know each other fairly well by the time we get to our final destination. I've told them about Tennessee and what I'm doing in South America, and they have been telling me all about the Puerto Iguazu area and Iguazu Falls.
10:30 A.M. We arrive at the Puerto Iguazu bus terminal and I'm immediately encountered by a man selling tours that I believe was sent to me by the bus driver. I like what he is offering though, at relatively good prices, so I book one boat ride for this afternoon at Iguazu Falls, and one all day bus trip for tomorrow the bus driver recommends that includes the Brazilian side of the falls and Ciudad del Este, Paraguay. The bus drivers tour recommendations do later prove to be excellent ones. They also wanted to arrange my hotel, for a percentage from the owner I would guess, but I preferred to go to the local Youth Hostel only three blocks from the bus terminal. I walk to the hostel and am very pleased with it. It is clean and inexpensive at twenty dollars for three nights, eight for the first, and only six for the second and third. Though a little tired from the already long day so far, I'm feeling quite happy as I drop off my luggage and head out to see the sights.
11:30 A.M. I'd walked about five blocks and was now at the bus stop where one catches the bus to Iguazu Falls. It was twenty kilometers to the falls, and the bus only cost two dollars. It arrives after only a short wait and by 12:15 P.M. I'm dropped by the visitor center in Iguazu Falls National Park. I first find out where my 1:30 boat tour leaves from, and then set out to see the park and falls. At this point I'm at a loss as to what to say. The falls are an unbelievable experience, and simply the greatest natural wonder I'd ever seen to this point in my life. They are supposedly the widest falls in the world, disputed by Victoria Falls in Africa, and one of the four great natural wonders in South America: Iguazu Falls, Angel Falls, the Moreno Glacier, and, of course, the Andes Mountains. Iguazu Falls are two kilometers across and turn the Rio Iguazu, peaceful and quiet above the falls, into an unbelievable sight and sound experience. The size is impossible to comprehend without being there and, in fact, it is near impossible to comprehend even being there! Incredible.
There are hundreds of tourists here, many speaking English. I'm hearing the most English I've heard since I left the U.S. I speak with people from the USA, Australia, Canada, Holland, England, Germany, and more. All seem overwhelmed by the falls. I start my hike through the park on the lower, Rio Inferior, trail, as that is where I must go to catch my boat tour. I'm at the dock on time and off on an incredible ride. The boat heads toward several of the major falls, approaching as close as is reasonable safe. We actually go under one of the falls as the water pours down on my head! I'm soaking wet and I absolutely love it! I stood under a falls on a boat ride in New Zealand's Milford Sound, but the water flow is greater and more powerful here at Iguazu. Minutes later, we are flying down the river in the speedboat, over surprisingly rough water. Bump, bump, bump, bump, I'm hanging on tight to the ropes on the boat, life preserver securely in place around my body as we speed through the beautiful canyon of the river.
Several miles downstream we dock, and then hike a quarter mile uphill to meet a four wheel drive “jungle truck” for the nine kilometer ride on a deep mud trail through the brush and back to the park visitor center. The ride is very rough and we are all bounced around consistently. At one point, my wrist slams against the back of the hard wood bench in front of me and smashes the band of my watch. Such is the adventure of life I say to myself, as I put the watch in my pocket.
Back at the park, I now head out to hike the upper, Rio Superior, trail. This trail provides various views of the upper falls and is even more incredible than the lower! I have never seen so much flowing water in one place. Walking the trail, I'm fortunate to spot a pack of White-faced Capuchin Monkeys in the trees, and then, about ten minutes later, a pack of Coatimundi in the bush near the trail! I snap many pictures of the falls and the wildlife, hoping for at least a few really good ones. Unfortunately, the skies have remained gray all day. I'm booked on another tour tomorrow, but I've already decided to come back in two days and hope that the sun is out. Standing at the top of the falls, it is like the end of the earth is directly in front of you. Absolutely wild.
5:30 P.M. I catch the bus back to town and walk to my hotel for a brief rest and drier clothes, then back to town to seek out dinner. I choose a small Italian place where I order a large pizza, mozzarella, tomato, and eight olives - yes, exactly eight olives, carefully placed one per slice, with the pits still in them. It had a different taste than an American pizza, but was quite good. I was definitely hungry, as I really hadn't eaten all day. The falls held my interest where I never really thought of food.
7:30 P.M. I'm back at the hotel and meet my "roomies" in the hostel kitchen, where a group of travelers is sitting around cooking and eating, three males from Holland and one from Australia, and two women from Australia also. We all chat about where we have been and where we are planning to go. Everyone offers various advice based on their individual experience. Funny thing about hostels, I've stayed in many of them and have noticed that few people ever bother to give their names, just where they are from, where they have been, and where they are going! The common interest is in seeing the world and loving all of it. This group is no different.
8:50 P.M. I excuse myself from the table and head to my shared room. I change to night clothes and write for a while as I lay in bed. That doesn't last long as I'd put in another long day and was worn out. My alarm was also set for 7:15 A.M. to make my morning scheduled tour. It is 10:05 P.M. when I turn out the light.
7:15 A.M. I'm up and getting dressed, preparing for today’s tour with the "Caracol (Snail) Turismo Company," a strange name for a tour company! They are supposed to pick me up in front of the hotel around 8:00 A.M. Unfortunately, I hear pounding rain on the roof again and, looking out the window, the weather shows little promise of improvement. I stand under the canopy of the hotel, waiting for the bus, when one of the owners predicts, "Sol en una hora." The four of us standing there all laugh at that dream.
The tour bus arrives at 8:20 A.M. and I'm off for the day, the rain be damned. The bus is the hardest seat, roughest riding I've been in so far, and the uneven stone streets of Puerto Iguazu don't help any. After several pick up stops, we are loaded with twenty-four Argentineans, four of them children, three Canadians, and a lone American, me. We stop in front of the Caracol office and the tour guide takes the passports of the three Canadians and me inside, apparently for their inspection. The most valuable document one has when traveling is their passport, so you're always concerned when someone takes it, but ten minutes later the guide returns them to us. Technically, Americans need visas to enter Brazil, but it is my understanding one gets around that if you are in and out of the country the same day, with no spending the night. Meanwhile, the rain continues to come down hard.
Soon we are off with the next stop the Brazilian side of Iguazu Falls. The bus has nine rows of seats, seating four across, two on each side. The front four rows and the back four rows are filled with citizens of Argentina. The middle row consists of the three Canadians and me. This is simply a coincidence that we end up together as we didn't know each other when we got on, and no one was speaking any English. Maybe subconsciously we all looked like Norte Americanos? We arrive at the border to Brazil in just a few minutes. Crossing is "no problemo," except for one Argentinean who is carrying a large, evidently expensive, camera that the Brazilian immigracion personnel wish to take a closer look at before approving.
Meanwhile, I am getting to know the three Canadians, the oldest of whom is Guido, a man about age sixty who was actually raised and lived in Switzerland until ten years ago, son of a French father and Italian mother. He now lives near Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. He has worked most of his life with watches, precious stones, and various jewelry. He shares my side of the aisle, while on the other side sits Calvin, a young man age thirty, and Jeremia, a young woman of fifteen, both from Victoria, British Columbia. None of the Canadians knew each other before this trip. They were all members of a religious group who had been building a dormitory for a Christian school in a small town outside of Cordoba, Argentina, for the last month. They're all now traveling a little before flying back to Canada in two days.
In about twenty minutes, we reach our first Brazilian stop, an "Artesans Market," which is quite large, appears to have mainly mass produced items, and proves to be over-priced. Listed prices are in Brazilian, and are actually about one-third higher in US$. There is a chocolate shop near the back, and others on our tour are telling me Brazil is known for their chocolate, so I buy a small piece for US$1.15. It is good, as all chocolate, but nothing outstanding in my opinion. Then it's back on the bus. All signs are now in Portuguese, the language of Brazil and, though similar to Spanish, somewhat more difficult for me to follow. I do quickly discover that "Lombada" is the Brazilian equivalent of "Lomo de Burro." I wonder how that relates to the "Lambada," the famous dance of Brazil?
Another twenty minutes and our bus enters the Brazilian "Parque for the Cataracas." It is more commercial here on the roads leading to the park, and quite different from the Argentina side, yet there are obviously thick jungles on both sides of the road. Our guide informs us that over 1000 species of wildlife live in the park, but almost all are rarely seen by humans due to the thickness of the jungle and their inherent fear of humans. Looking at the jungle, I can easily believe our guides comments.
9:50 A.M. It is raining steadily as we exit the bus and begin our walk through the park along the established catwalks. The catwalks are different in their approach along this side of the river. The Argentina side has catwalks along the bottom and top levels of the falls. On this side there is only one walk, and it remains mostly about mid-level of the falls. The catwalk does approach very close to the falls near the end of the walk, however, and you feel a part of them as the water envelopes you. Between the steady light to medium rain, and the spray from the falls, everyone is soaked. Cameras are very difficult to focus for all of us: wet lenses, wet viewfinders, wet eyeglasses, wet hands, fog and mist. Who knows what the photos may end up looking like, but everyone snaps away as if the sun is bright overhead and the air crisp and clear. It is SO WET, but very powerful, beautiful, and fantastic. I've made most of the walk with the three Canadians, occasionally having each other snap photos of ourselves with our own cameras. As on the Argentina side, words cannot describe the sheer majesty. About 11:15 A.M. we gather by a small roofed picnic area near the bus, watch a short video of our group on tour, which is offered for purchase at US$35.00, if we choose, and then board the bus to leave the park.
12:15 P.M. We stop in Foz de Iguazu, Brazil, a thriving border town that occupies the relatively small corner of Brazil between Puerto Iguazu, Argentina, and Ciudad del Este, Paraguay. We are given a thirty minute shopping stop in an area of shops on a major street, during which I wander in and out of several, but find nothing I wish to purchase. Prices seem much higher in Brazil than the other places I've been. Then it's back on the bus and a short ride to our lunch stop.
1:00 P.M. We are at the "La Estancia Churrascaria" restaurante in Foz de Iguazu, Brazil. It is a very nice place featuring an all-you-can-eat Grand Buffet plus the churrascaria, which consists of the famous Brazilian grilled meats, brought to your table by the waiters on long swords. Separate swords of pollo, beef cuts, and chorizo (pork sausage) appear in front of you, again to take all you desire. Though I'm basically a vegetarian, I choose to experience local culture and tradition when traveling, so try some of everything. It is magnificent. The pollo is cooked with sauce and spices that may be the finest I've ever tasted. The buffet items are also excellent: a grilled spaghetti, a beef tripe sauce, rice and salsa, squash, sweet potatoes, fried potatoes, some spicy puffy breaded stuff, a creamy potato salad and other veggies that are more common to Americans, plus a general salad bar.
Great desserts included: chocolate pudding, tropical fruit salad, bananas in an orange cinnamon sauce, another fruit in a ginger sauce, custard flan pudding, watermelon, and lots of plain fresh fruit. Really good and quite plenty overall, as I eat the most I've eaten on the entire trip. It is all enjoyed to the background music of a two person band playing numbers such as "Strangers in the Night" and "Guantamanero." Everything is included in our tour except the vino, which the restaurant makes a nice profit on charging fifteen dollars for a bottle costing three dollars in a grocery store.
2:15 P.M. Everyone looks like they need a siesta, me included, but we are off to the Itaipu Dam on the Rio Parana that forms part of the Brazil-Paraguay border. On our way to the dam, I pull my watch with the broken band out of my pocket to check the time. Guido notices my watch and asks me what happened. I tell him the story, he asks to see the watch, and I hand it to him. He says, "No problem. I was a watchmaker in Switzerland for many years." He pulls one of those magnifying eye pieces and some miniature tools out of a little kit he has in his pocket, sticks the magnifier in his right eye, and proceeds to fix my watch right there on the bus! I'm thrilled, amazed, and very appreciative. I feel naked without my watch on my wrist and am very happy to get it back. Guido tells me I'm going to need a new band, but his repair should last for a month or two. That will at least get me back to America.
At the dam, we stop at an overview for quick photos and then on to the Visitor Center for an explanatory film in whatever language you choose. The three Canadians and I watch in English. Our driver then takes us across a road on the bottom of the dam, and then we return on a road across the top of the dam. Physically, we are technically in Paraguay and then back to Brazil again, but no one stops us going in either direction. The dam appears to be sort of a "free" zone for tourist dollars. Though the natives seem proud of it, the dam is not especially impressive to me, just a lot of concrete in my eyes.
3:15 P.M. We are back on the bus and on our way to Ciudad del Este, Paraguay. The line of cars waiting to cross the international bridge is incredible! We move only inches at a time as vehicles in every direction are operating only inches apart, creating their own lanes as they choose. There are hundreds of people parading in both directions across the bridge, entering Paraguay empty-handed, but returning to Brazil loaded down with purchases of all kind. I see women carrying everything from cigarettes to television sets and other electronic equipment. Entering Paraguay, the sight is beyond words. It appears to be one giant outdoor flea market, with stuff of all kinds for sale in every direction. The sidewalks are covered, every inch, every street, every direction, by makeshift tents, canvas or plastic coverings over metal poles tied together. Later I see the merchants break down each night and set up again each morning, helping account for the huge traffic problems of the city.
It is 4:45 P.M. before we finally reach our stopping place and park, only two miles into the city from the bridge. We are told we have one hour to wander and then return to the bus. We are off and I'm quickly on my own, carrying my last two Tennessee sweatshirts and looking for bargains. It is still raining lightly. 5:00 P.M. It is now pouring harder than ever. The red clay streets have turned into an ankle-deep river of red water filled with clay soil, trash and waste products of all kinds. It is filthy and unimaginable to most Americans. My formerly new tennis shoes continue to take a horrible beating. Never-the-less, I buy a tie for five dollars U.S. in one store, and cambio one of my UT sweatshirts to a woman street merchant for a locally made leather airline carry on size bag. I am very pleased with my items, but soaked to the bone when I return to the bus at 5:45 P.M.
It is 6:00 P.M. before the last of our group returned to the bus and we were off - while I thought we were off! The traffic is worse than ever. Nothing is moving! The drivers all ride on top of each other, allowing no one between, in an attempt to gain an edge. It is only three kilometers, about two miles to the bridge, but it is obvious we aren't going to get there very soon. All rules are either non-existent or now forgotten. No stop signs, no traffic lights, create your own lane. The merchants have taken down their stalls for the night, so the existing sidewalks are now additional traffic lanes. There are still vendors who run (or in this case, walk) alongside the bus offering candy, cookies, drinks, etc.
Our bus had become one big party bus! We were all buying various food items from vendors and passing everything around the bus. The Argentineans are now all smoking, drinking Coca Colas, and the bus has become "todos amigos." People are getting off the bus to use a tree as "el bano," and then back on again, even the women! The four of us who speak English are now the center of attention, especially the young, congenial, and good-looking twosome of Calvin and Jeremia. One young Argentinean, a boy of about age twelve, is speaking broken English with them. It is obvious in his manner that he finds Jeremia attractive. By the time we reach the bridge, I have conversed with a woman professor of law at the University of Cordoba, a woman professor of geography at a secondary school in Cordoba, a family from El Azul in southern Argentina, and have learned a lot more about futbol. The Argentinean's bitter rival in futbol is Brazil, and they share an intense dislike for one another’s team. The USA team plays Brazil in two days, and they are all cheering for the American team. One man says loudly, "Predicto Estados Unidos, dos. Brazil, uno." Everyone applauds and laughs.
8:45 P.M. A great time was being had by all as we finally crossed the international bridge. It had taken us two hours and forty-five minutes to travel the three kilometers, an average of only 1.1 kilometer, or 1.7 miles per hour! Never have I moved so slow, yet had so much fun. But now the bus is flying across Brazil, and by 9:15 P.M. we are at the Brazilian border where one crosses in to Argentina. Our guide is off the bus, talking to the Brazilian authorities, when members of our group start to get off the bus one by one, because everyone needs to use "el bano," myself included. As we walk toward the bano, Guido and I are speaking English when a woman from our bus comes up next to us and says, "Shut up. You have no visa. Understand?" We understand and immediately shut up. No one wants a delay at the border due to any paperwork issues.
Safely back on the bus, we sit quietly as a Brazilian authority walks through and looks around the bus. When he departs, everyone cheers and laughs. The woman who told Guido and I to shut up is in the back of the bus making some kind of strange noises. I look at her and she says, "Bird calls." I reply, "Bird shut up. Bird has no visa." Everyone has another laugh and as we finally reenter Argentina, cheers break out. Calvin speaks little Spanish, but one man says to him in Spanish, "Do you drink wine?" Calvin replies, "Poquito." I add, "Y poquito mas y poquito mas," and there is much laughter again. Guido speaks fair Spanish, but young Jeremia speaks very excellent Spanish and interprets for Calvin and the rest of us as needed. She is the most popular of our group, a young pretty girl who speaks excellent Spanish. She impresses all the Argentinean's on the bus, particularly the young men and boys. The Argentinean's are also impressed and amused by my stories about my cambios.
9:30 P.M. The first group is dropped off at their hotel, then the second group, and then me. With each group there are echoes of "ciaos," handshaking, and cheek kissing. No one appears in a rush, even after over a thirteen hour day! Everyone remains very sociable right to the end and all seem to leave with good memories of the day. As I step to the front of the bus to depart I say, "Estados Unidos futbol, si. Brazil, no." I exit to cheers and applause.
It is 9:50 P.M. as I enter my room wet and exhausted. I discover I have two roomies tonight. One is the same Dutch guy from last night, who is currently working an internship in Buenos Aires, and the other is a new guy, Simon, age twenty-seven, from Manchester, England. We talk for about an hour about my day and our various future plans. Simon was here two days ago, then went to Corrientes by bus and didn't like it, so came back here! I am cold and wet, but so dirty I must take a quick shower before going to bed. There is only cold water, but at least I get the dirt and grime off. I feel much better as I crawl into bed, my clothes and backpack spread all over the room to dry. It is 11:10 P.M.
8:30 A.M. I awake and start the day by slowly organizing my wet and dirty clothing. I dress and go to the outside kitchen, sitting down to write a few notes about yesterday. It has turned much colder this morning. I try to keep warm as best I can, ending up writing for several hours. So much to think about. 10:45 A.M. It is time to head out for my last day in Puerto Iguazu, a place I've grown quickly to like. Unsure of where I might eventually visit, I stop at the local Brazilian Consulate office to obtain a Brazilian visa. I don't know if I'll use it or not, but at least I'll be legal to enter Brazil for a few days if I choose. It cost only one photo and about thirty minutes of waiting. There are four workers, three in the office and one guard outside. Those inside pass my paperwork very slowly from one to the other, each doing their small part. I'm the only person waiting, and what is a five minute job in the U.S. takes the full thirty here. As I was walking to the visa office, one of the families from the tour bus yesterday drives by in their auto and blows their horn. Jose Martin, the twelve year old boy, and his ten year old sister, Mariana, wave along with their parents. Jose yells hello as I wave back. He loves practicing his English, even one word at a time.
It is 11:55 A.M. as I leave the Brazilian Consul office and head for the main shopping area of Puerto Iguazu to see if I can find a gift for my son. I debate walking several miles to the point where you can see three countries before going back to Iguazu Falls for the day, but decide against it. I am finding nothing that seems appropriate for my son, so when the sun makes a brief appearance at 1:04 P.M., I head for the bus stop to the falls, looking closely at the red/brown and red/pink colors that dominate this town. Sadly, the sun disappears in ten minutes, but the decision has been made.
I get on the bus and sit by Vicki, who immediately becomes by buddy and companion for the day. She is from London, England, and has just arrived on a bus from B.A. She is taking a side trip on the way to visit her sister, who is teaching in Santiago, Chile. Vicki is studying Agriculture at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. We have much to talk about, with many similar interests. I'm her guide for the day and she's a cheerful and very pleasant companion. I tell her I'm hoping for some pictures of the falls in sunlight, but as it turned out, there was only a few minutes of sun all day. The light is interesting though, and I hope for some good photo opportunities.
1:45 P.M. We arrive at the park and start with hiking the lower trail, getting some excellent views of a rainbow over the falls. Next it's the boat to Isle San Martin, and hike the trail to the top of the Isle, leading to the base of one of the larger falls. It is a challenging uphill trail and is very wet again, but we have like spirits of adventure and are having a great time. Then it's down the trail, the boat back to the lower trail, and the long uphill hike back to the top. The cool air keeps us from getting too tired though, as we then head toward the upper trail of the falls. Before arriving at the start of the upper trail, we see two of the families, eight people from yesterday's bus tour. We stop to say hello and chat a bit with them, including little Jose and Mariana Martin. We then go on to the upper trail, a trail that is mostly flat and not very tiring, offering some great views for relatively little effort. The light is now fairly good and we are staying reasonably dry.
4:00 P.M. We have seen everything we can see in this area and decide to catch the shuttle bus to "Garganta del Diablo," "The Devil's Throat," about four kilometers away. The guide books say it is the closest one can come to the feeling of sailing off the end of the earth. We arrive there and quickly discover it is something very special. The original catwalk is no longer walkable, the wood and iron having been twisted and shredded by flood waters that rose ten feet above the current river several years ago. The grotesqueness of the remaining catwalk speaks volumes of the power of the floodwaters.
4:30 P.M. We must take a small boat from shore about two hundred yards, where we disembark and walk sixty yards on part of the remaining catwalk, and then take another boat fifty yards to more catwalk, for the last fifty yard walk to the throat of the devil. It is absolutely magnificent and Vicki and I are both stunned! We are looking at the end of the earth and into the Devil's Throat - the gates of a watery Hell. We stare directly ahead twenty yards to the main waterfall, featuring an unbelievable amount of power and water thundering over the edge. The spray is so powerful one cannot see the river below or down river for some distance. The water rolls over the edge in the colors and shape of a vanilla and caramel ice cream sundae, scoops here, ribbons there, and spray everywhere. The Devil spits in your face and you stand petrified and hypnotized by the spray. I had never experienced a natural wonder so magnificent and powerful. The Grand Canyon sits there and invites you, Iguazu attacks you. The next time I hear an Alabama fan yell, "Roll Tide," I will say to him, "You ain't seen nothing!" As I think about that, the light hits the caramel, giving it a slight orange glow as the orange and white of Tennessee rolls over the edge of the earth. Vicki and I stand mesmerized for some time before taking the boat back to shore. It is a ten minute trip, and we arrive on shore at 5:55 P.M.
A sign at the bus stop says the last shuttle leaves at 6:30 P.M. We wait at the bus stop, watching it turn dark, real dark, in the jungle forest by the river, and no bus ever comes. The few employees left are now locking up the little gift shop, chaining up the boats for the night, and leaving. We are deep in the jungle, it is pitch black and twenty-four kilometers to town! The last two young boatmen, each about age twenty, are getting into an old car to leave. Vicki's Spanish is superb, and she is much prettier than I am, so we decide she should ask them for a ride to town. She does and, thankfully, they agree. Their car is very tiny, almost as old as me, and clearly older than they are. Vicki and I squeeze in the back though, and we go bouncing down the dirt road, in the dark, for four kilometers until reaching the main highway, then twenty more kilometers to town. They are kind enough to drop us at the office of "Turismo Caracol" at our request. I give them five dollars for "petrol" and they are very happy as we depart their vehicle.
It is 7:00 P.M. as we enter the office so Vicki can book herself on the same tour tomorrow that I took yesterday. Afterwards, we realize neither of us had eaten since that morning, so we go searching for dinner. We reach the center of town, only to discover that most of the main restaurants don't begin serving until eight except for the pizza places. We are both hungry enough that the issue is settled. Pizza wins. It is 7:30 P.M. by the time we are seated at a small pizza place, ordering the house special, with cheese, tomato, ham, egg, olives, and red peppers of some kind. It is excellent, though nothing like an American pizza. Vicki and I have a wonderful chat about everything from traveling, to politics, to our president, their government, and the problems of their royal family. We are both very tired though, plus she has an early tour tomorrow, and I still have to figure out where I'm going next. We pay the check and I walk her back to her hotel, before a quick caio and heading back to mine.
9:00 P.M. I'm back at the Youth Hostel and find the Brit, Simon, and I have added a new third roomie for tonight. He is Jugo, age twenty-one, a university student in public relations from B.A. Jugo has been studying English for five years, and is now having an insane time trying to speak English with an American and a Brit - two different versions of the same language! Jugo turns out to be a humorous young man, as is Simon. Simon and I are world travelers, but Jugo is new to travel and is a real character of a personality. He talks about loving the English language, and tells us that in his opinion Argentina's most beautiful cities are Bariloche, a famous ski resort, and Mendoza, near the Andes on the main route to Santiago, Chile.
Simon and I kid Jugo about his huge "rucksack," as he is carrying more luggage and unnecessary items than anyone we have ever met! Jugo replies that it is the first trip he has ever taken without friends along, and he is still learning, but wants to travel and see the world. He tells us some crazy things about how his fellow Argentinean's all love to wear clothing with American writing on it, and they don't have any idea what it says! "They just love American fashion, American music, and American NBA." I decide Jugo will do very well in public relations. We all talk to near midnight, and I still haven't figured out exactly where I'm heading tomorrow. It is 12:10 A.M. now, so I'm going to bed and will figure it out in the morning. Lying in bed though, I decide I'm going to Asuncion, Paraguay, no matter how difficult, one way or another.
7:45 A.M. I'm up and dress quickly. Looking out the window, it is a beautiful blue sky day, and I think briefly about going back to Iguazu Falls; but I'm packed and ready for Paraguay. I head for the bus terminal, thinking Asuncion or bust! As it turns out, I start out with a bust! 8:15 A.M. I'm on a bus marked "Argentina to Paraguay Only." Good. I want to skip any stopping in Brazil for now. However, the bus drives right through Argentina immigracion without stopping, and I know I'm again in trouble. It is 9:30 A.M. when we reach the border to Paraguay, and I jump off the bus to get my passport stamped. Of course, as I've learned by now, they will not stamp me entrada to Paraguay without a salida from Argentina. 9:45 A.M. I catch the bus back to Argentina, this time requesting the driver let me off at the Argentina border. The Argentina immigracion authorities now routinely stamp my passport with a salida, and I wait for the next bus back to Paraguay. About 10:45 A.M. I'm on my way back to Paraguay, again getting off the bus at the Paraguayan border. It is 11:30 A.M. as my passport is now routinely stamped with an entrada to Paraguay. Free at last! Free at last!
I step back outside again to catch the bus that will take me to the Ciudad del Este bus terminal, where I can catch a bus on to Asuncion. I don't wish to spend any more time in Ciudad del Este. While waiting though, I notice a cambio a block away, so I quickly walk over and change US$100.00 for almost $200,000 Paraguayan Guarani. One U.S. dollar is almost $2000 Guarani! I then hurry back to the bus stop, at least hurry as much as one can who is now carrying over forty pounds of luggage, and wait for the bus onwards to the main terminal. It is 11:45 A.M. as the bus comes and I board. It is the same driver and attendant whom I was with on my first attempt to enter Paraguay, when I was turned away at the border. They recognize me and let me ride on without charging me another two dollars again, a very nice gesture on their part.
Ciudad del Este is the most confusing and different place I've been. The economy operates totally different than anything in America. Women walk around carrying baskets on their head, some looking very heavy. No hands though! There is the stench of raw sewage everywhere. Filth and dust or mud all around. Traveling around the city, my body feels grimy and my hair greasier than the food at the worst restaurant I've ever eaten at. It is a shocking city to a westerner, especially an American.
12:10 A.M. I'm at the Ciudad del Este main bus terminal when I find out it is only 11:10 A.M.! Paraguayan time is one hour behind Argentina, though it is not further west! This turns out to be good for me, as a bus for Asuncion is leaving at 11:30 A.M. I buy another "ventana asiento" for only U.S. nine dollars, $18,000 Guarani, all the way to Asuncion. I watch as my luggage is loaded into one of the compartments under the bus. Mine is the only bag, being loaded in with several tires and a whole lot of food! My later count reveals about fifty crates of tomatoes, fifty large plastic sacks of candy, ten 20 Kilo bags of sugar, ten crates of eggs, and my bag!
I quickly stop at a small terminal shop to purchase a few snacks for the trip, then board the bus, which pulls out at 11:35 A.M. The bus was obviously a luxury bus once, but is now old and only semi-clean, though the seats are still comfortable enough. As usual on bus rides, most of the locals prefer to sleep, but not me. I'm looking out the window at everything, knowing I may never pass this way again. Everything is rolling hills and green as we leave, except right at the side of the road, where all is mud, dust, and little wooden shelters selling most anything. Many vendors have no shelters, but simply sell their wares alongside the road, or are carrying their complete inventory. This bus is supposed to be a "Directo Service," but that does not mean the same thing in Paraguay as it does in America. We stop dozens of times for all kinds of reasons, or no reason that is apparent. Every time we stop, vendors run up to the windows of the bus to sell various food and drink items. Many vendors, mostly young boys, come right on the bus trying to sell their wares.
12:15 P.M. The countryside remains rolling and green. There seem to be more palmetto type trees here than I've even seen in Arizona. Paraguay appears very pretty once one gets past the roadside vendors. Out the window, I buy a canned drink from a boy, "Guarana Brahma." It tastes different than anything I've ever had before. I've always thought of "brahma" as a bull, and decide I don't want to know what "guarana" is! The farther we get from Ciudad del Este, the more scenic the countryside and the less vendors. Occasionally, the bus stops at a control point of some kind on the highway, always manned by some form of policia. At several of our stops, the bus attendant jumps off to fill a thermos with hot water for the mate shared by him and the driver of the bus. I also notice that here a speed bump is called a "lomada."
I go back to use the bano on the bus, and find it is absolutely horrible. For an American male it takes guts and a really full bladder to enter, and an American woman should never do so! The windows for some reason are painted black. It is dark, no light, can't see, door won't stay closed, and urine appears to be everywhere. The stench permeates the bus more and more as the trip goes on. The man behind me has removed his shoes, and his feet are resting on the armrest beside me. Staring at all the vendors on the side of the road, I finally determine that these people are much like the truck stop restaurants in America, or McDonald's or other fast food chains in the U.S. They have reasons they exist. Everything fills a gap, serves a purpose, has a reason to live, or it can't exist for long.
1:30 P.M. I see a family of four washing clothes in a river, beating them on a rock. I begin to notice large red/brown mounds in the fields. Ants? Termites? There are lots of them throughout the trip. I also notice Brahman bulls and oxen everywhere, plus various farm animals scattered around the villages and countryside: chickens, pigs, ducks, geese, cows, burros and horses. No one seems to have much of anything, but a lot of families seem to have a little of this or a little of that. There are few fences. Cows or oxen are individually tethered in yards or small field areas. Once in a while they break loose, and wander as they please. They are quite large!
One village we drive through seems to be some kind of furniture center. There are rows of wooden furniture for sale along the road: chairs, beds, cribs, cabinets, etc. There are few signs in Paraguay to identify towns, villages, or streets, people just seem to know. The exception, I later learn, is Asuncion. I observe many two-wheeled carts being pulled along the side of the road, some by a lone horse, some by burros, and most by oxen. Always two oxen, or two burros, or one horse. A horse appears to be quite valuable in Paraguay.
2:07 P.M. The bus is so slow, yet it seems to rule the road, passing trucks and other vehicles routinely. I notice several trucks loaded with bamboo or sugarcane. I see several people drawing water from wells with a wooden bucket, rope and an old wooden winch turned by hand. Life is very basic in the Paraguayan countryside. The casas are small, shacks by American standards. Only occasionally do I see a good-sized piece of flat land, but then it is often a marshy area. The land remains mostly rolling hills and very green. Eight young vendors get on the bus as we stop, working to the back and back to the front with their sales pitch. They fill the narrow aisle!
2:43 P.M. There are lots of palm trees on the horizon now. It is clearly more tropical here. There are many little shrines along the roadside. I'd read that people built them for a variety of reasons, some because of highway deaths, some for religious reasons. Some are quite simple, some are very fancy, but all are small. 3:12 P.M. We pass several carniceria's, with their meat for sale just hanging out in the open air. We have also passed many futbol fields, all in use! I notice the electrical poles holding the wires stand quite crooked, and guess there are no straight trees here!
A very lovely "bella chica," about age eighteen, gets on the bus selling "Chipas," and I buy one. They are round and shaped much like a bagel, but with a larger hole. It consists of some kind of corn meal with little seeds in it. They seem best when slightly warm and fresh. They are sold all over Paraguay, the vendors crying, "Chipa, Chipa. Chipa, Chipa." as they hawk their wares. The "bella chica" carries them in a large wicker basket, as do most vendors. I've noticed women do much heavy work here, and in South America in general, plus they start young.
4:12 P.M. The bano smell keeps getting worse, but a sign says Asuncion is only 35 kilometers further now, and soon we are on the outskirts. Asuncion is a large city of about one million people, very spread out, and with lots of traffic. My first impression is a little disappointing, mainly due to the traffic and the fumes. It is 5:30 P.M. when we pull into the Asuncion bus terminal. It is very large, encompassing three levels, and I count about sixty-five buses here at the moment! After six hours on the bus, I'm glad to get off and gather my luggage, which, fortunately, does not smell like any of the food it has been stored with for the trip. As usual, I look over my options for leaving Asuncion by bus, take notes of my possible choices, and then go looking for a taxi.
6:10 P.M. I'm in a taxi heading for central Asuncion, and a hotel area recommended by my guidebook. It's seems like the drivers here all have race car training, as they drive quite fast, weaving in and out of traffic quite wildly. My driver appears to be among the wildest, but gets me where I'm going without incident, and I'm happy. I quickly find a room at the Hotel Hacienda for just ten dollars per night. It is real old, but clean and sort of funky, with high ceilings, run by a friendly English speaking Korean and his Spanish speaking Paraguayan wife. I drop my things in my room, and head out for a short walk to orient myself and see what I can for the moment.
The day was warm, about seventy, but now the sun was gone and it's getting cool again. I discover my hotel is in an excellent location, just two blocks from the main Plaza de los Heroes, and I'm very pleased about that. After walking awhile, I stop for dinner at a small pizza place, also enjoying some te con leche as a nightcap. Then it's back to the hotel, organize my belongings for at least a few days stay, and sit down to write for a while. I write for over an hour before exhaustion overtakes me, and I clean up for bed. It is 11:40 P.M. as my head hits the pillow.
8:00 A.M. My alarm goes off, I'm up and looking forward to a good day. I've found that once I settle into an acceptable hotel, I feel quite comfortable in South America. It is only the travel between cities that can be nerve wracking and tiring at times. This morning I feel great though, and at 8:45 A.M. I'm dressed and step outside to check the weather. There is a bit of morning coolness and a cool breeze blowing, but the sky is blue and there is the hint of a beautiful day. It was a little cold in bed last night, but slept okay. The shower was barely warm from the small electric heater in the nozzle, but it did the job and I feel great. I've learned the secret of those small electric heaters, keep the water flow light. If the flow gets too heavy, the heater isn't powerful enough to keep up. I dress in three layers of shirts, which seems right for the day, and am off to see the wizard of Paraguay.
9:15 A.M. I spot a travel agency and decide to check on the possibility of any tours to the countryside outside of Asuncion. I have no luck at the first agency I try, but the second one I enter, just around the corner, has a tour available on Monday morning for twenty dollars. I like the described itinerary, so I book a spot for me. I'm told there will be an English speaking guide and several other Americans, but do not take that as gospel. It sounds good, but things change here and adjustments are routine. One doesn't demand, nor necessarily expect, anything in South America to be overly specific. The agency is kind enough to inform me about other local happenings also, and I'm glad I stopped.
Every Saturday morning the "Palma Paseo" takes place. This means Palma, the main street of Asuncion, turns into an outdoor market and pedestrian way, with vendors covering both sides of the street for about eight blocks. It is a tradition for locals, especially young people, to come see and be seen, a parade or "paseo." The National Expo/International Fair is also being held this week in Asuncion, and is highly recommended by the agency. I love fairs and know it is something I want to see. Since it happened to be Saturday, I walked down to the Plaza de los Heroes, situated at one end of Palma and the Paseo. The Pantheon de los Heroes is also located here, a large church-like building that is the tomb for various Paraguayan national heroes, many of whose coffins are on display inside. It is 10:00 A.M., as I get to watch the changing of the honor guard outside the entrance. The building itself is very beautiful, and I'm told it was meant to be a church when construction started but never served as one, converted halfway through construction to a national tomb.
By 10:15 A.M. I'm walking down Palma, enjoying the Paseo. My first stop is at a table set up by a group of young people selling various baked items. Conversing with them in Spanish, I learn it is an escuela secondaria group trying to raise money for a dance at their school. Just like a school bake sale in the U.S.! We talk about Paraguay, Tennessee, and my impressions of both. Several of them are studying English, and want to practice their vocabulary with me. I have consistently found South Americans love to practice their English with Americans, especially if you speak Spanish to them first. Just a little bilingual ability seems to create a mutual interest and respect. We talk about fifteen minutes, and I purchase several items from them to help support their cause. We have fun laughing at some of our pronunciations of each other's language, and they seem very pleased when I ask to take a group picture to show my students in America. It is very exciting to me when I get to spend a little time with young people from different nations, and I was having a wonderful time.
As I continued down the Paseo, there was a crowd gathered around a man near the curb. As I move closer to see, I discover he is selling a liquid cleaner that he claims can clean anything, and is enthusiastically demonstrating it, just like at a fair in the U.S.! I notice Garfield, the cat, shirts for sale by several vendors, but they are imitations, and don't look much like Garfield.
12:20 P.M. I try some "Sopa Paraguaya" with an orange soda from another student group. This is the supposed national dish of Paraguay, a corn bread made with cheese and onions. It is very moist and quite good. The students tell me everyone has their own recipe for this dish, seldom any two exactly alike. I continue to wander among the shops and the street merchants, selecting several small gifts for my son and daughter. I also listen for a while to a good street combo, "Kalas," playing Paraguayan traditional music and selling tapes of their work. I enjoy their music a lot and purchase a tape from them as a memory. Another memorable sight is the number of women I observed carrying items balanced on their heads, some obviously quite heavy, but never using their hands. One never sees a male performing this delicate feat of both strength and balance.
Reaching the far end of Palma, and the end of the Paseo, I turn right toward the riverfront and the Palacio de Gobierno. There is a small plaza next to the Palacio that overlooks the Rio Paraguay, and the river is very beautiful from the high ground of the plaza. Directly below the plaza, however, and surrounding the Palacio de Gobierno, are hundreds of makeshift shanties constructed by the poor out of scrap wood, cardboard, tin, plastic, cloth, and other materials. Whatever might serve as insulation of any kind may be used by the masses. There are many shantytowns, totaling thousands of shanties, around Asuncion and all the major cities of South America; but to see the poor living right in the shadow of the nation’s capital is especially shocking. Very strange. Very sad. You wonder if anyone cares?
The Palacio de Gobierno itself is an attractive building, featuring a lovely working floral clock on the lawn. One cannot enter the building, however, so I now walk across the street to "Casa Viola," a restored colonial building, and then to the "Casa de la Independencia," dating from 1772 and where Paraguayan independence was declared in 1811. Both buildings are closed at the moment, so I make a mental note to try to come back this way another day or hour. Only a few blocks away, by the Plaza Constitutional, is the Casa de Cultura, a former military college, and the Congresso Nacional Edifico. I'm impressed by the architecture of the government buildings here, as well as the friendliest of the Paraguayan people I've met so far.
I walk toward the other end of the large Plaza Constitutional, where there stands a small green statue of a dog. A small hole has somehow appeared in the dog's rear end and bees are nesting in the hole. Bees in your butt! And you think you've got troubles! I take a few photos and then sit on a bench in the shade for a short rest and to write a few notes. It had been a wonderful day so far, weather and sites. The city's main Catedral is on my right as I rest.
3:35 P.M. Walking toward the Catedral, I purchase a small wooden bow and arrow for six dollars American from a Maka Guarani indian. It is a foolish purchase for one on a tight budget, but I can't help myself. These natives are "displaced" people, very poor, living in the back areas of a large outdoor park, the Botanical Gardens, here in Asuncion. They have little or no shelter and their skin is very dark from constant exposure to the sun. They make a living selling their small handmade craft items to locals or tourists. They are often barefoot, dirty and ragged looking, usually missing most of their teeth. This particular man had no teeth evident on the bottom, and only three visible on the top. Feeling sympathetic for the way they live, I spend the six dollars. In return, he allows me to take his photo, which they are generally very reluctant to do, the women always saying no.
The Catedral is interesting, unusually long and narrow, and reflects Paraguay's status as a poor country. It is solidly built, but is somewhat plain, built mainly with inexpensive local materials. There is little artwork inside, except for some impressive carved wood. When I exit and walk behind the church, I'm again surprised to see horrible slums, cardboard and tin shacks, basically open to the weather, right in the shadow of the church and running down to the river. Paraguayan people in some ways live very well. The weather is good, prices are cheap, and one needs comparatively little to survive. Those who live well, however, are to some degree doing it on the backs of those who don't. I ask myself, is this right? Is this wrong? Or is it neither, but just the nature of mankind?
Most all of the shantytowns are on the lowlands down by the river, within the flood plain of the river. When the big rains come every few years, and the area is flooded, what do the people do? One pictures them sleeping all over the plazas of the city that are located on high ground, until the water recedes and they can rebuild. Meanwhile, with each flood, the river becomes further polluted with trash and human excrement. Even during dry times, as now, the area is always one of high humidity. It is damp, misty, and offers a smell offensive to those of us unaccustomed to such squalor. Walking partially down the dirt and stone path leading to the lowlands, I note both sides of the path have been littered with piles of waste and human garbage. Man is the only animal who creates more waste than his own natural excrement. Man has become very proficient at producing waste, and that fact is well documented here in Asuncion.
Yet, I see residents of shantytown coming up the hill dressed clean and well, going somewhere on a Saturday night. Loud, energetic, Samba style music is blaring from several of the homes below. There is little electricity except where enterprising residents have cut into public wires and strung their own power lines. Life goes on, no matter how difficult it's struggles. When one looks over the roofs, averting one's eyes from below, the beauty of the Rio Paraguay is stunning. When one looks down and cannot see the river, the filth is everywhere. Why has God smiled on the river and frowned on these people? I want an answer, demand an answer, but I have none and no one offers any. I fight to hold my tears as I turn and walk away, as the world seems content to do.
5:00 P.M. I have walked only a few blocks before finding myself standing outside the Teatro Municipal. It is a place for shows - but it is not a showplace. I'm surprised at the rundown condition of a building that represents the nation, mentioned in all the guidebooks. I walk the mile plus back to my hotel, dropping off some things, resting a bit, and getting my jacket as the sun is gone for the day and the air cools.
6:00 P.M. I decide to have dinner at a place mentioned in my guidebook as serving good South American food. It is a mile walk, but I like walking. The hotel owner where I'm staying, a Korean, is very friendly and always helpful. He tells me that Paraguay, including Asuncion, closes down on Saturday night and Sunday to rest, even most restaurants, and I will find only a limited number open. Most restaurants are family owned, and the weekends are family time, quite a different attitude than I'm used to. I've learned this is routinely the way of life in the smaller towns of South America, but I don't expect it in a larger city. I soon discover Asuncion is made up of a million residents who still think as villagers. The city does not seem to think about the future, but prefers to hold on to the past, a decision that one could argue has considerable merit. Perhaps that is also why there are comparatively few high rise buildings here. The sun still reaches the streets of the central city.
Walking toward my selected dinner choice, I swing by the train station to view its architecture, and then Plaza Uruguay. I tend to like plazas and often sit in one and write, or think, or just sit and watch the local world pass by. The train station and the plaza are across from each other, and about half way to the restaurant I seek. Has I approach the train station first, and then the plaza, women start to say hola to me. At first I'm surprised, because it is not the practice in South America for women to speak to unknown men. Then I realize I've entered an area of prostitution, a new experience for me in South America. It is my first time being propositioned in another language!
One young woman, sitting in a ground floor window, says, "Senor, venga, venga," waving her hands toward me. "Senor, solo quince mil. Enter, enter." The last two words in English surprise me. I respond, "No, gracias. Senorita is muy bonita but yo es solo pobre turisto," and continue on my way past the train station and through the plaza. Walking through the plaza, a young girl, about fifteen, touches me lightly on the arm and says, "Senor, poco, poco." I don't know what that is supposed to mean, but again say, No, gracias," and keep walking. I think about what has just happened, and realize the asking price of quince mil is only US$7.50. The cost to use a woman's body for your own desires is not high in Asuncion.
6:45 P.M. I'm outside my restaurant choice and it is closed! It is just as the Korean hotel owner said! Fortunately, just across the street is an open place called "Rotiseria Metropol," and it looks good, so I go in. It is a delicatessen rather than a restaurant, but I'm now too hungry to care what it is. It has food! I have a combination pasta meal that is delicious: one vegetable ravioli, one vegetable lasagna with lots of mushrooms, and two peppers filled with cheese and veggies. All are really good. I must admit, I've really gotten to like the food in general over the last several weeks in South America. After eating, I walk back to my hotel, in my room by 8:00 P.M.
It is still too early to retire, and I'm now thirsty, so I walk back to the Plaza de los Heroes, buy a Sprite from a vendor, and walk among the stalls of the "Centro Mercado" for a while. I cambio my last UT sweatshirt to a vendor for a large wooden armadillo, carved by the Guarani Indians of the Chaco. I've now picked up several souvenir items and gifts, either through cambios or small purchases. It is 8:50 P.M. when I head back to the hotel, stopping to talk for a bit with the Korean owner.
I tell him the story of my Plaza Uruguay prostitute experience, and he has a chuckle at my expense. He tells me that is really the only area of the city where the prostitutes work and no one really goes there at night unless they have an interest in the girls. I tell him I've figured that out now, but that I never felt in danger in the area. He replies, "Oh, there is no danger. The Paraguayan people are very friendly. That is just the area the girls work. No want any? No problem." I laugh and agree I've found the Paraguayans very friendly. Going to my room, I sit down to write a few thoughts of my day. I'd decided to stay in Asuncion for at least a few days. It is inexpensive here and my funds are growing short. I know it is now only a question of days before I must make the decision to leave South America. I wash my face and by 9:55 P.M. my head hits the pillow.
8:00 A.M. My alarm sounds and I'm cleaned up, dressed, and out the hotel by 8:45 A.M. The weather looks great and I'm ready for another beautiful and exciting day. The bus stop is directly across the street from the hotel entrance, and I've been told that the #44 Artigas bus will take me direct to the "Jardins Botanico y Museo de Historia Natural," and then the same bus goes on to the National Expo grounds. Within ten minutes the bus comes and I'm off. The buses cost only the equivalent of US$.25 each time you get on. Throughout the next few days, I find the Paraguayan people depend on the buses, and they prove to be very efficient, though noisy and smelly. The diesel fumes of the buses, and the city air in general, is very noticeable. The air quality here certainly cannot be considered healthful. It is interesting that the buses have signs that read "No Fumar." I'm personally a strong anti-smoker, but with the overall air quality that exists here, I question whether anyone would notice the difference.
9:30 A.M. I exit the bus at the gates of the "Jardins Botanico," pay the $.25 admission fee, and stroll in. The park is the former estate of the Lopez family and is the largest piece of public open space in Asuncion. It is apparently very popular for weekend family outings. It includes the Museum of Natural History and the Asuncion Zoo, but there are really no gardens. The site is basically one of many trees, the shade important to a country with warm year round temperatures. A few hundred yards inside the park, I arrive outside the Museum of Natural History, housed in a small vintage colonial building.
Directly in front is a man selling ice cream, with a woman and six boys making their purchases. The boys all unwrap their treasures quickly, throwing the torn wrappers on the ground. The woman says nothing to them, and it is hard for me not to. Everyone throws things on the ground here and no one seems to object. It is the job of night and early morning cleaners to pick it up. It is one person's job to create a mess, it is another person's job to clean it up. Everyone has their job. It is the way the system works. There are small trash cans every few blocks, and a few large ones scattered around, but few seem to use them. They are always empty or near empty, though there is trash everywhere. I carry my own trash in my hand, and always deposit it in a trash container. I cannot trash the ground, even in Paraguay. It is not my way. As the boys walk away, I watch the ice cream man pick up part of the boy's trash and place it in the nearby container, an unusual action.
There are no park concessions here as we know them in America, but there are vendors all over the park, local entrepreneurs. Each of them just sets up wherever they please within this huge park. The grills are hot as the vendors offer carne of all kinds for sale, mostly in sausage form. Most of it smells quite good!
Entering the museum building, I find it is very small and limited, mostly specimens in jars or test tube like containers, preserved in chemicals. Other displays are stuffed, particularly the birds. I see several displays I find interesting though: Feto de Armadillo, Feto de Monkey (very strange and very human like), two very long snakes mounted on the wall, an Opossum with five babies on its breast, a pair of Feto de two-headed Vacuno (cow), lots of snakes in tubes, many fish looking very white and unnatural, a Tatu Carreta, a Tatu Poyu, a rather large stuffed Vampire Bat, insects galore, and a huge butterfly called "La Mariposa Mas Grande del Paraguay." Certainly worth a short visit.
10:00 A.M. Leaving the Museo, I walk toward the zoo area. Many more vendors had set up during the time I was in the Museo, and many more family groups were picnicking. There were "boom boxes" hooked up to auto batteries for power. There were even several mate vendors. I pass a row of vendors as I entered the disappointing zoo. The cages are barren sand, dirt, and very poorly cared for. The aquatic bird enclosure has three black cats inside it trying to kill anything for a meal. The ducks are wary and peck at them whenever they come near. The cages are more like farm pens for domesticated livestock than any natural display of wildlife. I see several types of animals in cages, but most cages are not labelled and one must guess at what kind of animal is inside when it is not obvious - and I find most of the time it isn't. Even if you know it's a monkey, what kind is seldom stated.
10:30 A.M. It is warming up considerably as I remove my sweater and place it in my backpack. The birds are the best display in the park, but they are the free birds, living naturally in the large trees of the park, with several types of yellow birds most beautiful and common. Leaving the zoo area, I purchase a Sprite from one vendor and a small popcorn from another. Strangely, in Argentina only nuts are sold on the street corners and no popcorn; in Paraguay only popcorn is sold and no nuts are evident!
As I walk some more, a Maka Guarani approaches me with trinkets for sale, but this time I resist. These people are now permanent residents of the park, living outdoors in the most remote regions. They wear only light clothing and what appear to be very old sweaters on cooler days. They appear beaten and battered by the elements, their skin dark and wrinkled and their teeth few. In their home, the sun is their heat, the wind their refrigerated air. All the comforts of home. Home is where your heart is. Home is where you hang your hat. Home Sweet Home. I wonder how the Maka's define home?
10:45 A.M. The park is becoming very crowded as more families have arrived. There are children playing everywhere and the weather is magnificent. I walk to a bench in a shady area and sit to write for a while. I'm surprised at how dusty it is, even in winter in the wooded park. I imagine the dust must really be difficult in the heat of summer. Perhaps the dust that gathers on cans is why you are always given a straw when you purchase a drink. Perhaps the use of a straw is a habit acquired from drinking mate, which in its pure form is always drunk through a filtered type straw. I carefully clean the tops of all cans I buy before drinking. A woman on my right is selling mate, or water for mate, which she scoops out of a big plastic yellow bucket that says Shell Talpa Oil on the side. I'd skip any mate for now!
11:58 A.M. After writing some, I decided to walk back to the entrance of the park and catch the bus on to the Expo. Walking toward the entrance, I'm struck by the number of permanent vendors there are in the park, operating out of small wooden structures, some with names on the side like "Casa Lopez" or "Carniceria Juan." I watch one of the popcorn vendors "popping" some corn. He holds a pot over the top of a flame coming out of a propane tank that sits on the ground. He stirs the corn with a hand crank attached to the lid of the pot. Everything is so primitive here to an American. I wonder if it is modern to them though?
There are many large stands of bamboo in the park, and I've always liked bamboo. I admire its strength and stubbornness against most anything it encounters. It is a symbol to me. I think an athletic team could justifiably be called the "Bamboos." The park is really loaded with families and vendors now, but yet it is so big that it doesn't seem that crowded. There is still room for pairs of lovers to find privacy under scattered trees, and it is a beautiful day for lovers. Watching them is when one feels a little sad to be alone. I see two young teen girls selling white/red/blue Paraguayan futbol shirts at a low price. I tell them I'll buy one if they'll consent to a photo and they agree. I end up buying two, one for me and one for my son. I take a brief look at the historical "Casa Artigas," located at the entrance to the park, and then exit and cross the street to the bus stop.
12:15 P.M. It is only a few minutes before I catch a bus going to the Expo, and by 1:00 P.M., I'm at the entrance. I converse briefly on the bus with an American Peace Corps volunteer who tells me the Expo is a major event and that prices are really inexpensive here. I'm excited as I pay my US$2.50 entrance fee. I love fairs, all the color, the displays, and the variety of interesting food available. I start with several flavors of Paraguayan ice cream, Paris and Portuguesa, then just wander up one walkway and down the next enjoying the sights. The young Paraguayan women of fashion wear high thick heeled shoes and very short skirts, creating a show of shapely legs throughout the city. Yesterday, I thought I'd seen the most beautiful pair of legs I'd ever encountered, but today I see a pair even greater! My eyes cannot help but follow many women, and I note that many Paraguayan men do the same.
I have many new experiences throughout the day including: - frio mate con limeno (tea) - piso sour en limon (alcohol) - shake a shake frutilla (milk) - hamburguesa completo (burger w/lettuce, tomato, ham, & fried egg) - woman dressed in New York "Nicks" sweat pants - petting a Brahman cow and calf I grew up with the wonderful Wisconsin State Fair and still try to make a trip to Wisconsin each summer in early August to attend the fair. Represented here are Paraguay, Bolivia, Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil, but the Expo reminds me very much of the Wisconsin State Fair! Take away the Spanish language, and much is the same: "beer" gardens, plenty of grilled meats and unique sweets, music, livestock, commercial vendors selling souvenirs, agricultural exhibits, loads of people, and lots of fun. The main differences I note are: - more livestock in Wisconsin, particularly hogs - more horses in Paraguay, indicative of their importance here - more and bigger midway rides in Wisconsin - no games of "skill" or "chance" in Paraguay - Paraguay has rodeo, Wisconsin auto racing The overall feel is the same though, and I love it!
I watch five skydivers come down, all aiming for a bulls eye set in the middle of the rodeo arena. One hits the bulls eye, and three land elsewhere in the arena. The fifth incurs trouble, however, and comes down short of the arena, landing on top of a large New Holland brand piece of farm equipment on display outside the arena. He hits the roof first, and then stumbles head first into the rough, sharp, lower parts of the equipment designed to churn the earth. He is hurt and bloody, but apparently not too seriously, as he is led away by two police officers.
In many booths there's a television playing and people are gathered around watching the futbol finals of Copa America. Uruguay defeats Brazil and that seems to please most Paraguayans. Uruguay is a smaller country, like Paraguay, and the locals seem to identify with them against Brazil. I next sample some "Gotas de Oro" and purchase several bottles as "regalos para mi amigos" back in the states. I meet Miss Paraguay and have my photo taken with her. She is very beautiful and very tall! Mostly, I just watch everything, snap photos, and have a wonderful time. I also enjoy several cups of hot mate, thinking how good that stuff is!
6:15 P.M. I leave the Expo to catch the bus back to the hotel, and discover there are more vendors outside the Expo than inside! There are probably fifty vendors right outside the gates, and another hundred lining the road across the street by the bus stop. Crossing the street is also a real challenge. There are two lanes on each side of the road, all full of speeding traffic. When you spot a gap in the traffic, you sprint across two lanes to the two foot wide median strip. Spot another gap, and you sprint across the other two lanes to the other side of the road. Why does the chicken cross the road? She doesn't on this road!
Once across, the buses are all in a line of about twenty to twenty-five buses, and they just keep rolling on through. All different numbered routes and you have to search for your bus. I'm looking for Linea 44 to get me back near my hotel, quickly jumping on when I spot one. The funny thing about buses in Asuncion is they seldom really stop, except for a red light or if all traffic comes to a standstill. Bus stops are only occasionally marked.
If you see the bus you want coming, you hold out your hand, wave, and the bus sort of rolls by you slowly as you jump on! The driver has slowed to first gear to pick you up, but is back in second before you can pay your fare. There is no waiting for anyone to sit. You pay your fare and stagger to find a seat anyway you can. Getting off is much the same way. You pull the cord and the driver gets over near to the side of the road anyway he can. Often he actually stops, but it is a quick stop. Don't ever hesitate getting on or off. If the bus is in the left lane when someone rings to get off, the driver just whips the bus to the right and stops briefly as he can. If he passes a potential rider, he slows a little and the rider runs to catch up and jump on. The buses are rough, bumpy and smelly, but efficient!
It's a fairly long distance, but by 6:45 P.M. I'm back near the Plaza de los Heroes and off the bus. I walk slowly back to my hotel and sit down to write for a while. It has been a busy day and I'm tired. I take some time to clean up and organize myself for my tour tomorrow. I still haven't decided if I'm staying here for the remainder of my time in South America or moving on. Tomorrow is my tour of the countryside, and then the next day I plan to visit several schools and see what is available to me. It is only 8:25 P.M., but I'm going to bed! Great day!
6:45 A.M. I'm awake, shower, dress, and am outside checking the weather by 7:30 A.M. It is another beautiful day. I go exchange some money, and then enjoy "desayundo completo" at "Hola, Hola," a small cafe across the street from my hotel. They serve a nice breakfast consisting of a large glass of orange juice, three pieces of toast cut into quarters, butter and te or cafe con leche. I go with my usual te. By 8:45 A.M. I'm sitting on the steps of my hotel waiting to be picked up for my tour.
8:55 A.M. I'm picked up by Javier in a new Ford Bronco. We then pick up Chuck and Erika, a couple from San Diego, California, staying at the Gran Hotel, the very expensive best hotel in Asuncion, but less than two blocks from my hotel. Chuck shortly tells me that if they can't afford to stay at the best, they just won't go! They soon prove to be the type of American's who are overly fussy and often critical of how others do things. These kind of American's bother me, as they seem more intent on flashing their wealth around than experiencing the culture of Paraguay. It seems we three are the complete tour, and Javier doesn't speak any English as the travel agency said, but that's okay. Erika speaks Spanish, so her and Chuck have no problem either as we are off. We drive by the home of the Paraguayan President, the U.S. Embassy, several other embassies, Recoleta and other cemeteries, and the very nice looking Colegio Santa Clara, a private escuela secondaria.
At one point, Javier is waved over to the side of the road by a policia, although he is clearly doing nothing wrong. The new auto smells of money to the policia though. Javier gets out of the car and they walk away and talk. I see Javier place some bills in his hand and then shake hands with the policia, transferring the bills. A routine, though very sad situation, in many parts of the world. Though we asked, Javier would not talk about it when he returned to the car and we drove off.
We continue our drive through the villages of Arequa, a Peace Corps training center, Ypacarai, and Caacupe, a Catholic religious center, where we stop at a magnificent church fronted by a huge plaza designed to hold a crowd. Javier tells us they get huge crowds here for various religious festivals and special events. Then we drive on to San Bernardino, a summer resort for the wealthy on Lake Ypacarai. I notice the San Bernardino Country and Golf Club as we drive by. We stop briefly at Lake Ypacarai, and it is pleasant and beautiful. It is a lovely day, but Erika is too warm and wants the auto air conditioning turned on, so I have to close my window. It is the first air conditioning I'd experienced in South America.
We drive on to Itaugua for a look at the famous "nanduti" lace, handmade by the local women. We drive back through Capiata, home of the Francisco Lopez Military Academy, and finally through the suburb of San Lorenzo before we re-enter Asuncion. It is a lovely drive, uneventful, but with a good look at the quiet small towns away from Asuncion. A very nice morning, I'm thinking, as I'm dropped back at the Plaza de los Heroes at my request. I sit on a bench and write for a while before walking to the local telephone office to phone my daughter back home and check everything is alright on that front. We just talk a few minutes, which holds the bill down to only US$13.00. All is fine with my family, and I feel quite good as I walk back to my hotel.
1:30 P.M. I pick up my dirty clothes in my room and decide to walk to a laundry I saw the other day. It is about a six block walk. In Paraguay, you cannot do your own laundry, but leave it with the women laundresses and seamstresses who take care of your clothes. I request mine be done by the end of the day and they agree to have it ready by 7:00 P.M.
It is now 3:00 P.M. after grabbing a snack in a little groceria. I'm only a half block from Plaza Uruguay, the night home of the local prostitutes, so I decide to see what it looks like in the daytime. It is quite different. There are many people here on the benches, but based on their pobre appearance, they are not among the upper classes of Asuncion. 3:30 P.M. I'm sitting on a bench across from three very cheap prostitutes. They are on the same bench I saw them the other night. It is their home - this bench belongs to them. One cannot accurately guess their age, for they have led a hard life and are old beyond their calendar years. They always sit in the same order on their bench.
As I face them across the path, on the left is Elena. She is grossly overweight, wearing a gold pullover shirt and flowered print skirt. She wears black string-tie canvas shoes and nylon stockings that end below her knees. Her appearance is very filthy. She smokes constantly and sits with her legs apart, often wide apart, showing no panties. She has short black hair and wears bright red lipstick on her round face. She is difficult for me to look at directly. Seated in the middle is Rosita, wearing red canvas slip on shoes, a long sleeve white cotton pullover shirt, and a light blue very short canvas skirt with white panties. She has short black hair covering the upper half of her egg shaped face, narrower at the chin. She is thinly built and might have once been considered pretty. Now, however, several missing teeth are evident behind light pink lipstick. She is one who approached me the other night, and I declined politely. Now she ignores me. Not being a potential source of dollars, I am of no consequence in her world. Seated on the right is Conchita, of medium built but at least thirty pounds overweight. She wears blue canvas slip on shoes, a brown and black print skirt, and a rust colored blouse that button up the front. She buttons and unbuttons it at will, sometimes showing no cleavage, sometimes quite a bit. Her clothes appear clean today. She is the group member responsible for their music, carrying a medium-sized red and black portable radio.
They all drink beer slowly throughout the day, sharing one cup, but Conchita by far drinks the most. She appears to own the cup. Elena rises and walks behind their bench to a wide palmetto type tree and stoops to pee. She pays no mind to me and I try to pay little to her. All three speak very rapidly in a tongue I don't really understand. They are all of medium brown skin and it appears possible they may be of Indian descent, perhaps speaking Guarani, the Indian language and the second official language of Paraguay. Conchita is clearly the loudest of the trio, often shrieking at something or someone across the plaza. Elena is also quite loud when she speaks. Rosita speaks the least, and the softest when she does.
Rosita often gets up and moves around the area, from ten to twenty yards in different directions, as if scouting for a prospective customer. Two young male vendors, with stands in the plaza, come by on separate occasions. Each jokes with the women in what appears to be sexual matters based on the accompanying hand and body movements. They appear to be regular vendors, who all know each other, and are not customers or potential customers. A woman also comes over and speaks to the trio for about three minutes before walking away. She appears younger than the three, with long brown hair dyed with streaks of blonde. She is wearing black heels, very short blue denim shorts, and a blue denim halter top that hides little. She appears to have a "good" body, at least still. She fits well the stereotypical image of the "lady of the night" with her dress, hair, and full red lips. Rosita gets up and wanders off somewhere in the plaza and, for the moment, I do not see her. Perhaps she is "working."
A young woman rides up on a small, twenty inch, bicycle. She wears faded blue jeans, a brown and white striped oversized halter top, and black loafer shoes. She has dark shoulder length hair, medium brown skin, and bright red lips on a round face. She has a slight "roll" around her middle that shows under her halter top. She appears to possibly have some Asian blood and may or may not be a "working girl" at this point in her life. Rosita returns after ten minutes, and I have no idea where she's been. The women all appear to know each other well and the words fly rapidly. The Asian girl stays about fifteen minutes before pedaling away. Rosita wanders off again, appearing to definitely be scouting the area now. Based on the appearances of the three, she has the highest likelihood of finding "work." Various people walk through the park and past their bench. Some are ignored, some men they will make a comment to; but in an hour so far, only one man has shared a few words with them. That was only two quick sentences and some laughter.
4:45 P.M. The bench I'm sitting on is very hard, so I choose to get up and walk around for a bit to get some of the stiffness out of my body. It will be dark here before long. As I walk through the plaza, a tall, bearded, scraggly-looking white male, wearing an old brown tweed sports jacket with a filthy gray shirt and pants, grabs by arm lightly and asks in perfect English, "Hey mister, loan me a dollar will you?" I am surprised and pull my arm away, keeping on walking as he swears at me, this time in Spanish. I suddenly realize that he spoke with an American accent!
I noticed a much larger number of "working girls" out tonight, about twenty compared to ten the other night. The other night I was here later though, and perhaps many were already busy. No one speaks to me now, but I'm walking a little quicker and avoid looking directly at anyone's eyes. As I past the a rundown building across from the train station, a man steps out of an open doorway pulling up his zipper. About ten feet behind him, by a pillar, I see a woman straightening her clothes. Several ladies are standing in doorways, but again no one speaks if you keep walking and do not look at them directly. Another block and I'm away from the area.
I'm walking faster as I'd like to get to the "Museo Dr. Andreas Barbero" before dark sets in. The Museo now belongs to Universidad Nacional de Asuncion. It is near the river and, as I walk, I notice all the side streets leading to the river are filled with shanties. I pass an elementary school, Escuela N.10 Juan Ramon Dalquist, just as they are dismissing students for the day. Children in white smocks are filling the streets. On each side of the school the streets are filled with shanties. I see students leave the school and turn down these streets toward their homes. This is strange and sad to me, and I wonder what hopes and dreams these children carry. How many may one day escape from this environment? It is a long trip from the outhouse to the penthouse.
5:10 P.M. I snap a photograph of the school and the children coming out. Several male students notice me and my camera and come running at me yelling, "fotographia" and pointing at themselves. I agree to take a picture of them if they will gather together and stand still, but his appears to be an impossible task. As they try to be still, more and more boys come running over and leaping unto the others, all trying to get in the "fotographia." I am the highlight of their day! I finally take one shot, which I guess will probably be blurred, as too many boys keep pushing and moving around. Now about twenty boys gather around me all yelling at once, and I'm forced to respond mostly with "no entiende." When they quieted down, I tell them their photo will be shown to my students in the Estados Unidos. This brings smiles and laughter. I ask if any of them know any English a boy of about age eight responds, "Si. Fuck you." Another very small boy yells, "Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you." They are all laughing now. I tell them, "Fuck you es no muy bueno," and shake my finger at them. I tell them they should be "bueno ninos" and wave "adios" as I continue toward the Museo.
5:30 P.M. I'm inside the courtyard of the Museo, and have discovered it is an old building, in very poor condition, and with a lot of obvious maintenance and repair needed. There are students here meeting in the courtyard, and I see at least one teacher and her students in a classroom. The lack of funds appropriated for education in the places I've seen in South America is pennies against dollar needs. The Museo is small and I don't stay long, plus it is getting dark, and this neighborhood is not the best. I start back toward the hotel, stopping for a bite of pasta at a small restaurant, and then picking up my laundry I had dropped off earlier.
It is only 6:30 P.M., but I'm lucky today as it is ready early. The cost is only US$5.00 including the ironing of one pair of pants, very reasonable and a lot cheaper than in Argentina! The woman running the laundry does not speak English, business and the study of English not necessarily going together in Paraguay. Argentineans study business, are interested in the larger world of business, and thus study English as the language of business. Paraguayan's do not study English and do not seem particularly interested in the larger world of business - yet most of them are entrepreneurs, small business men or women, albeit very small in most cases.
7:00 P.M. I arrive back at my hotel and stop and chat with the Korean owner, paying for another night. We talk about Asuncion and the friendliness of the people. He has lived in Seoul and in New York, but says since he has lived here he has never seen people fight in the street, or loud yelling and arguing in the street, as he used to see all the time in New York. Asuncion is a peaceful city. Except for the night people of Plaza Uruguay I must agree, and even they are not violent, just men and women with few options left. There seems to be a very relaxed attitude among the Paraguayan people, except when they get behind the wheel of a car or bus! Then it's every man for themselves, and I say man because one seldom sees a woman driver!
The Paraguayan's rise early in the morning, many starting work by 7:00 A.M., but they are also not late night people as found in Argentina. It's pretty quiet around Asuncion by about 9:00 P.M. When I take my typical evening walk, the streets of the city are normally not crowded. Tonight is no different as I take a walk to find a small store where I can purchase a soda. They actually have a diet soda, a rarity here in this land of sugar lovers. 8:30 P.M. I'm back in my room, sitting on the bed and writing for a while, then reading until I'm sleepy. It doesn't take long, and by 9:20 P.M. the light is out and I'm between the sheets.
7:15 A.M. I'm awake and up, adapting to life in Paraguay. A shower, dress, and by 8:30 A.M. I'm at "Hola, Hola" for "desayuno." This morning I have the cafe con leche with jugo de duranzo. Peach juice is common here, though not in America. It is sweet, but not too sweet. Orange juice here is more sour here than Americans are used to, but it is also good. I had decided today will be a lazy day. I'm tired overall and had no specific plans. I'm getting short on money, so today I must decide whether to stay in Asuncion and fly home from here, or if I can afford to visit Cordoba, Argentina, and then back to B.A. and fly home. I spend the morning walking and thinking, wandering in and out of various shops, talking to street merchants, and just generally enjoying the ambience of this delightful city.
I spot an American Airlines office on my walk, stopping in to check on what days and time it is possible to catch a flight back to America. I always like to know my options available. I've also just learned about an English school here, the Centro Cultural Paraguayo Americano, and if I can observe some classes there I'll probably just stay here in Asuncion. I'll have to go find it today. It has gotten very warm since I've arrived, the temperature reaching eighty yesterday and today. I'm wearing only a tee shirt for the first time on this adventure. It is warm, but not hot yet, just nice.
It is 12:15 P.M. and I'm doing something I never thought I'd do. I'm sitting on a bench in a small plaza right next to the Plaza San Francisco Lopez, which really no longer exists as a plaza because it has been taken over by the poor of Asuncion and is filled with shanties. There are several apparently homeless men sleeping on the ground around me, and one man sleeping on a bench, or at least trying to sleep, with his two small children around him. A little girl @ age five and a boy @ three are pulling at his clothes and climbing on him. The father wears no shoes, but the children both wear sandals with yellow shirts and gray print shorts, though nothing matches. The boy has blonde hair, the girl dark hair done in a ponytail tied with a red ribbon. The red ribbon seems special among one's so poor. The father wears dirty dark brown pants and a dirty red shirt with a futbol insignia on the front, and the number eight on the back. He rises and walks @ ten yards with the children to a fence overlooking the river. Another boy @ five comes from one of the shanties carrying a dirty futbol, and the three children all kick it around together on a small patch of grass. The boy wears a brown shirt and gray shorts with gray canvas slip on shoes. Though nothing is perhaps as we would like it to be, the children seem happy as they play.
I walk into the shantytown about fifty yards and then turn and walk back out. Though I feel no danger, I'm an outsider and the inhabitants know that. I've not been invited into their home and I'm embarrassed to invade their privacy. I also feel embarrassed because, though I have little by American standards, I have so much compared to them. In comparison, I'm "rico." I feel like I should do something, say something, but I'm at a loss for either. Back in the small plaza, the father is now kicking the small ball around with the children. This lasts only a minute before they all stroll back into the sheds of shantytown. There are now only two men sleeping near me and one man walking toward me again from the shanties. The man wears gray pants rolled up to his knees, an open down the front tan long sleeved shirt that is very dirty, and no shoes. He carries a purple and green thermos of mate, and a blue plastic plate filled with a pile of yellow something that appears to be a corn based meal. He takes a seat in the shade behind a bush to eat his lunch, but after only a few bites puts the plate down and proceeds to take a nap. One naps a lot when one has nothing to do and nowhere to go.
Age is very difficult to tell. Some look so young but look so old. Very confusing. It is also very unusual to see a poor person with all their teeth in front, making them look even older. A woman walks through the plaza holding a young girl's hand. They appear to be mother and daughter. The woman has dyed long blonde hair, half way down her back, a very short yellow sundress, held up by two tiny straps, and red sandals. She looks nineteen, she looks thirty-five. The little girl is @ age seven with long dark hair, and wearing yellow pantaloons with a yellow/green/white Minnie Mouse tee shirt and white tennis shoes. The children all seem to look happy, the adults all bored, tired, or both.
12:22 P.M. The sun is hot sitting here, so I decide to walk for a while. As I rise, I notice that though the shantytown is only twenty yards to my right as I face the river, the Palacio de Gobierno is only fifty yards to my left. Do government officials ever look out the window? What do they think? As I walk towards the "Casa Viola," across the street from the Palacio, I notice the plaza on the other side of the capitol building is called the "Plaza de los Desaparecidos" (the disappeared). Quite interesting!
The "Casa Viola" is an old, but beautifully restored, colonial home now serving as the city art gallery. They are currently exhibiting eighty original Picasso drawings on tour, so I walk in to see them. Picasso, however, is not among my favorite artists, so I don't stay long, but wander several blocks past the capitol to the port area of Asuncion. There are surprisingly a large number of well-dressed men and women in the area, as well as a number of dock workers. I'm told there are a variety of import/export and government offices in this area. It is a busy port.
Walking back toward the central city, I stop in a leather shop I visited several days ago where there works a young woman who speaks excellent English. I wanted to ask her where she learned and if she can direct me to the English school I've heard of. She is very kind and helpful, telling me she attended the American High School in Asuncion for four years and writing down the address and directions for me. She also gives me directions to the "Centro Cultural Paraguayo Americano," but warns me she is not sure of the address or exactly where it is. If I can get to visit both and possibly observe some classes, that will give me good reasons to stay in Asuncion for the remainder of my trip.
2:00 P.M. I'd stopped for a bite of lunch at a restaurant on Palma, ordering a hamburguesa completo con papas fritas y gaseosa for only US$3.00 total! Quite spicy, and real good! I then walk back to the hotel to wash up and head out to find the American school and the English language school. I plan to start with the latter, as it is supposedly the closer. The walk turns out to be a long one as I end up walking about two and one half miles past the school. I see the Embassies of France and Argentina, the private Colegio de San Jose and the private Columbia University, but no English school. I ask directions many times and the Paraguayan's always try to be helpful; but that is true even if they don't know what they are talking about! They consider it rude to not try to help, so they always try. I was pointed in every possible direction before finding someone who really seemed like they knew where the English school was, and fortunately they did!
5:00 P.M. Hot, dirty and sweaty, I finally arrive at 352 Avenida Espana, the address of the "Centro Cultural Paraguayo Americano," known as the CCPA. I visit the office to see the reception people, explain my research and desires, and they respond that they would be pleased for me to visit any classes I desire. They tell me classes are held at five and seven on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, and quickly escort me to Room #317 so I can observe one of tonight's classes! My escort explains my presence to the instructor, and I take a seat in a corner of the room to watch, pulling my notebook out of my backpack. The room is @ nine feet wide and @ eighteen feet deep with eighteen brown student desks and a small brown teacher’s lectern. There is a six foot wide green chalkboard centered on the short wall opposite the door, and an overhead fan now turned on due to the heat of the day. The class has fifteen students, thirteen female and two male. They are all from fourteen to seventeen years old.
The teacher is Hester Van Dyke, of South African origin. She spends about fifteen minutes going over the answers to a test the students had taken earlier. Then they divide into groups of five and are working on a group lesson. They pay no attention to me, and seem quite serious about their studies as the teacher goes over some new vocabulary words they are encountering in this exercise. The teacher is very thin with short brown hair, wearing small gold earrings and very little makeup. She wears a long blouse and skirt almost to her ankles, black with a rose print throughout. She also wears plain black flats and a thin dark gray belt around her waist. The students are dressed as students in America, mostly jeans with light tee shirts or blouses. They all have dark hair, thirteen black and one brown. There are few natural blondes in Paraguay. All appear of Latin origin except one young man of Asian roots.
The current group exercise was entitled, "Do You See Yourself as Others See You?" I'd quietly joined one group and discover this is their first week back after their winter break. They total their individual scores and then receive an instructional sheet on interpreting their scores. Sort of a mini Meyers-Briggs! Certain students from each group volunteered to read their personality profile so that others may comment on it. The students all seem to enjoy the interpretations. Due to the noise of the overhead fan, the teacher must speak loudly to be heard, and I have to strain to hear the students. They than switch to an exercise in their workbooks about exercise and physical conditioning. The workbooks are very colorful, utilizing lots of pictures. The teacher plays a tape and they answer questions about what was said on the tape. Questions are about height and weight and conversion, e.g. one kilo = 2.2 pounds. The quietest person in the room appears to be the lone Asian young man. He is very tall and very shy.
I'm sitting between Iorit, age 14, a young Jewish woman, and Marta, age 15. They continue to answer questions about height and weight as found in their workbooks. Iorit tells me there are only fifteen Jewish families in Asuncion and all of Paraguay, so they all know each other. She tells me her mother is Bolivian and her father Paraguayan, but her Jewish maternal grandfather came to Paraguay immediately after World War II. The students remain very attentive throughout the lesson, with only minor conversation and whispering that appears unrelated to the lesson. They are supposed to work only in English, but some do occasionally speak in Spanish. The teacher quickly corrects that if she hears it.
Everything the teacher does is geared to group work, using work sheets and exercises. The techniques seem effective as most of the students appear to speak reasonably good English for their age, including Iorit and Marta. The class is one hour and forty-five minutes long, a long time to hold the attention of students this age. The Paraguayan's appear more attentive than American students of the same age. They seem to be a more gentle and polite group of people at any age, supporting the opinions of the Korean hotel owner where I'm staying. The teacher is now closing the class by assigning a short workbook exercise as homework.
6:45 P.M. As class ends, I ask Iorit and Marta what year they are in school. They are both in what is the equivalent of the ninth grade in the U.S. They are much more attentive than the same age in America. Hester, the teacher, tells me she has just been here a few months since coming from South Africa. She apologizes for having no time to talk, as she must go to teach another class elsewhere in the building. I take a breather myself, just standing in the hall and watching the students walk by, coming from or going to class. I use the term "hall" loosely. It is really a veranda, as everything is open air here.
7:00 P.M. I join the group meeting in the room next door to my previous one. It is identical except the nineteen desks are seven wooden and twelve formica. There are fourteen students, five male and nine female. They are all from age 17 to 19, except for one man @ age 25 and one woman @ age 45. They are mostly the equivalent of high school seniors in America. They are engaged in an exercise about university majors and degrees in U.S. schools. All the students appear of Latino origin except for one Asian male. The teacher is Aleides Noquera, a male @ age thirty, well dressed in dark navy slacks, a blue and white striped dress shirt with a brown and blue patterned tie, and black dress shoes. He has dark medium length hair, and also wears a black belt, a gold tie clip, glasses, and has both shirt sleeves rolled up slightly. He sips from a bottle of Sprite through a straw. He had studied at Lynchburg University in Virginia, and at Miami of Ohio, spending eight years in America.
7:30 P.M. The students are working in pairs, asking interview type questions of each other. They then go over the questions and responses for the entire group. They stop and ask me a few questions about Tennessee and Chicago for some reason, which I answer and they move on. They are now working on an article about being a medical doctor. They are working on tenses, simple past and present perfect! I'm sitting here thinking I don't even know some of this stuff!
7:50 P.M. The students are working quietly in groups of two or three as the teacher walks around assisting the groups, listening in, making comments or suggestions. They then read the examples they have been working on and comments are made by the teacher and other students. They seem to do well with the simple past tense, but have some trouble with the present perfect. The teacher is very soft spoken and low key, but the class remains very attentive. The students say things like, "Teacher, would you write it please?" An American student would be less polite and more demanding. The physical conditions here are so bad in terms of weather and facilities, yet the students are way more attentive than in America. Emotionally, an interesting place to teach, though pay levels are low. It is noticeable there are more male teachers here, at this school anyway, than in Argentina. I wonder why? Does being a private school make a difference?
8:25 P.M. The students have been listening to a tape in English and interpreting what is being said. They now switch to writing sentences in the correct tenses. So far, in both classes, only the term "teacher" has been used by the students when they have a question or wish to speak. There is no mister, misters, miss, professor, or any other title used. Whenever the students are working on something, the teacher walks around listening, commenting, and checking their work. Again, we are talking about a class lasting one hour and forty-five minutes without any break. Now, a new exercise is passed out and they are asked to write the answers on their own paper.
I've noticed in both Argentina and Paraguay that photocopied material is always only loaned to the students, not to be written on, but to be returned in good condition. To do otherwise costs money, and both money and materials are hard to come by here in South America. I notice one odd situation in the class. Three young women work together, but the Asian boy works alone. Why is that? He is the only student who works alone. He is quiet, but looks confident when writing out the answers to exercises. The class finishes with an exercise using sentences with "such" and then "so." The class is dismissed at 8:45 P.M. with no homework assignment this time.
I thank the teacher for allowing me to sit in and he tells me I'm welcome back on Thursday if I'd like. We talk briefly about his time in America, but he is tired after a long day and I do not wish to detain him for long, so we say goodnight. I start the mile and a half walk back to my hotel, stopping for a quick bite. I'm really eating late - turning into a South American!
I'm back in my room at 10:00 P.M. I've calculated my financial situation and it looks like I'll stay in Asuncion until returning home. American Airlines told me they can get me on a flight from here to Miami on a choice of several days next week. Between the opportunities to visit schools here, the airline schedules, and my finances, the decision is made. My remaining days in South America will be spent in Asuncion. Now, I'm going to bed. It is 10:10 P.M., and I've had another full day.
7:30 A.M. My alarm goes off and I hit the shower, dress, and am ready for another day by 8:15 A.M. I'm not a "morning person" at home, but I'm becoming one here in adapting to Paraguay! I was thinking about several things throughout the night. It was interesting how I intended yesterday to be a quiet, nothing special, relaxing kind of day that turned into another full dawn to dusk day! It is amazing what one can see if they travel with their eyes and ears wide open. There is something exciting, something to learn, something to feel, something to hear everywhere you look. I'm pleased to be staying in Asuncion for a few more days. My trip will be barely a month in length, when I'd originally hoped for five or six weeks. My money just didn't last.
The prices have not been unreasonable, but have been considerably higher than the various guidebooks stated, particularly hotel rates. No problemo. It's still been fun, and is now turning into a "hot" time, with temperatures above eighty Fahrenheit the last several days, plus quite humid and sticky. A Paraguayan winter isn't much different than a Knoxville summer! The teacher from last night, who had studied in America, told me a Paraguayan summer is much like an Arizona summer with humidity! I had lived seven years in Arizona. That's one tough summer!
Speaking of the heat, one notes the Paraguayans are generally found in the shade. The street merchants set up under trees, canopies, on shady corners, or on the afternoon shade side of the street. The Maka Guarani Indians set up on blankets, on the ground, in the sun, and do not move out of the sun even in the blistering heat of the afternoon. Their hair is jet black, and their skin is usually a dark chocolate brown, milk chocolate being about as light as the Maka get. Their multiple generations of living outdoors, in the elements, was not lost on their bodies. The women always sat barefoot, using their toes and hands in the weaving process. They speak Guarani, which I do not understand. Some Paraguayan merchants sell shirts with Maka Indian faces on them, but I feel certain the Maka's receive none of the money from sales.
Another nighttime thought, yesterday at "Casa Viola," I noticed the building also contained the Biblioteca Nacional, the Municipal Library for Asuncion. It is very dark, very small, and obviously operating with limited funds. For people who want to learn, it must be very difficult with only limited tools available to them. Today I plan another relaxing day, but we shall see. I need to shop for "regalos para mi amigos."
My first decision though was to head for "Hola, Hola" for desayuno as it was already 8:45 A.M. when I stepped outside to another beautiful day. The mornings are lovely at this time of year, but it is clear it will be hot again before too many hours have gone by. I changed my mind about my breakfast stop and decided to try a place on Palma just the other side of the plaza that I've passed several times. It is called "Space Fast Food," and the only Paraguayan equivalent of an American fast food type restaurant I've seen. It has a much nicer atmosphere and decor than an American fast food place though. The breakfast is so-so though, and the te is weak. I can't recommend it as a breakfast stop. I'm still hungry as I leave.
A few minutes later, I am shocked as I walk by a panificada. There are honey bees flying all over the place and swarming on the various "sweet" bakery items! But no one pays any attention, workers or customers! Since many shops have no doors when open, the locals are apparently accustomed to this kind of thing and just go on about their business. I debate purchasing something as, after all, I do eat honey. I didn't have the nerve, however, and I passed this time. I do stop at another little place instead and get something covered with chocolate, sinful but delicious.
As I continued to wander searching for gifts, I stop in several larger stores including "Nueva Americana," a large two-level department store I'd ignored until now. The employee's all dress in "uniforms," that is a particular pants or skirt, a particular shirt or blouse, and a particular tie or scarf the store has selected as their "look." It is very nice, and quite handy for the customers to clearly know who the workers are. Although I tend to prefer small "mom and pop" shops, this was a very nice department store, clean and friendly.
Continuing my walk, the air is already dirty. There is no nice way to say that, the city is very dirty. It is filled with dirt, dust, trash blowing in the wind, and the exhaust of autos and buses. The diesel engines of the buses create black smoke and soot that attacks your eyes and clothes. The sun exaggerates the smell of human sewage and decomposing trash that one passes. You cannot stop to think about it though, or you will be run over by a passing vehicle!
Vehicles have the right of way in Paraguay. They come rolling through intersections from all directions, conceding the way only as necessary. It is hilarious to watch but, surprisingly, works for Asuncion. It would be real interesting back in the USA! In Asuncion the streets are all basically two lanes of traffic, with a lot of one way streets in the centro ciudad. On wider streets, the system would probably break down in my judgment. The bus lines are all private here also, so they hustle like mad in competition for riders. Fares are all the same, so they compete on speed! Asuncion streets are the Indianapolis 500 of buses, with no yellow caution flags allowed.
Elephants are possibly the most difficult animal to find in South America, everything here being llamas, alpacas, guanacos, pumas and colorful birds. I have found a few for a friend and shall keep on looking. I have obtained some shot glasses for my friend, Marie, but they are probably a lot different than Marie expects! Maybe that's good.
It is almost 10:30 A.M. and the heat is already noticeable as I search for elephants in the jungle of the city. I find mostly dogs, of which South America, particularly Paraguay, must have the ugliest dogs in the world! They are all of no particular breed, skinny as can be, with scabs and sores all over their bodies. They sleep, walk, and defecate wherever it may please them. If they have any home, it is not evident. They are a sorry lot. To live like a dog in Paraguay is to be at the bottom of the pole. If there are any purebred pedigreed dogs in Paraguay, they are incubated and pampered in the casa del rico.
11:00 A.M. I circle back toward my hotel, arriving at 11:55 A.M. As I sit down to write a little, I turn on my little room wall air conditioner for the first time since I've arrived in Paraguay. I plan a long walk this afternoon toward Embassy Row and maybe Parque Caballero, looking for elephants along the way. As I walked back toward the hotel, I noticed Paraguayans my age and younger all walk slower than me in the heat. Perhaps they are much smarter than me! I take a "poquito siesta" before heading out again. Hunting elephants in Paraguay is hard work.
1:10 P.M. I headed back toward the CCPA, finding no elephants along the way. After shooting a few photos, I stopped at the school "cafeteria" for some lunch and a cool drink. I've found I'm thirsty often here in Asuncion. There are only three tables and I'm invited to join Roger Pugh and his wife, two American Peace Corps volunteers who work at the CCPA every afternoon. They were having "Sopa Paraguaya," but the cafeteria was out so I ordered "Chipa Guazu," another traditional Paraguayan dish, plus some fresh lemonade. Mine was an excellent dish of corn, onions, and grain with spices.
Mrs. Pugh has to leave immediately for a class, but Roger sits with me and tells me all about the CCPA. The school has about two thousand students, all part-time, and finances itself through their English classes and various fund raising projects. He tells me they have the best library in Paraguay, with over ten thousand volumes, half in English, half in Spanish, and with air conditioning. I'm given a tour by Roger and the CCPA librarian, Ana Maria G. DeVillalba. There is even an office for a counselor who comes in three hours every Tuesday and Thursday to advise students about studying at universities in the United States. They are proud of their efforts and, from what I've seen, rightfully so.
Roger recommends several other places I might wish to visit: Colegio Americano and Universidad America, both located three to four kilometers farther out from the city. Roger also tells me the CCPA much appreciates any books they can get from the U.S., and I agree to see what I can do for them back in Tennessee. I tell Roger I'll probably be back tomorrow afternoon, and at 2:30 P.M. set out to see if I can find either of the other schools he suggests. (Upon returning to Tennessee I did start a books for Paraguay drive and sent about five hundred books to the CCPA for their library)
3:30 P.M. I don't mind walking, but I've walked over two miles further out now with no luck so far. I've stopped to rest on a bench and write some before getting up to walk some more. It is warm and humid, and I'm walking much slower than my normal pace of fifteen minute miles. I'm seeing a lot of Asuncion I haven't seen though.
4:30 P.M. After about six miles one way, I arrive at Colegio Americano, only to find out they close at 3:30 P.M. Six miles and no one is home! I talk to a security man who informs me what bus to take back to the Plaza de los Heroes, and what bus to take out tomorrow morning. Resting a few minutes, I take a quick look at the area. The school appears quite large with a very nice campus, red brick buildings in a park-like atmosphere. The school is located in a very exclusive area, filled with large, very expensive homes, behind locked gates. Beautiful architecture and landscaping is all around.
4:50 P.M. The bus comes to take me back into the city, and before 5:10 P.M. I'm back near my hotel. I do pass the little bakery where the bees were swarming this morning only to find that they are still swarming. They have been doing their business all day with no one paying any significant attention to the bees! A situation that would never occur in the States. I take a short break again in my room before heading out for dinner. I plan to go to a place about six blocks away that I've noticed is always crowded, thus I assume it must be good. It is called "Sibol S.A.," and is crowded now as I arrive at 6:30 P.M.
As I sit down and examine the menu, I pause to look up several unfamiliar words in my dictionary. The young woman next to me starts giggling and I ask, in Spanish, if she is laughing at my Spanish? She replies in English, "Yes. I am." Her name is Carolina, and she studied English at the CCPA! She has also visited Florida, New York, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. We decide I should order "Sopa Paraguay," the traditional dish, but they are out. Then we try "Sopa de Pescado," but they are out. I finally settle for "Chipa Guazu," just as at lunch, but every place prepares it somewhat different and this is again quite good. I also have cafe con leche and a dessert called a "Peach Split," two peach halves each with a scoop of ice cream in them, one vanilla and one strawberry, topped with whipped cream, a strawberry and a few peach slices.
It is all very good and I'm again stuffed as I leave the restaurant at 6:50 P.M. I tell Carolina she should take me somewhere for "Sopa Paraguay" and she tells me she works at Citibank, just down the street, and she'll be eating at this same place on Friday at 6:00 P.M. if I care to come by. We shall see. I had told her I'd be busy tomorrow, at Colegio Americano in the morning and at the CCPA in the afternoon, our conversation going back and forth between English and Spanish.
After dinner, I stroll over to the "Plaza Mercado," still looking for gifts for my friends. I've found some inexpensive elephant items and shot glasses, so things are looking better. Bueno. I make small talk with several merchants, enjoying the now cooler night air. The city is more pleasant at night as the vehicles are lesser in number, the air seems a bit cleaner, and the dust of the day settles some. The days here often have a good wind blowing, especially near the river. The dust and fumes fly about, getting in your eyes and nose. I have sensitive eyes and have been using eye drops more than usual. Early mornings are great as the air clears overnight, but quickly grows thick again with the new day.
8:10 P.M. I sit down on a bench, under a light, on the plaza to write a bit and rest. It is 9:05 P.M. before I walk back to the hotel to clean up and get some sleep. I want to be up early tomorrow and get out to Colegio Americano by mid-morning and, overall, it will be another long day, but a potentially interesting one. Today was another good day, but then they have pretty much all been good days. It is 9:35 P.M. as I turn out the light.
7:00 A.M. I'm awake and ready to start a new day. I've only used my alarm a few times since I've arrived in South America, my inner alarm and personal excitement doing the wake up job for me. When you are in bed early, it is not hard to wake early. My morning starts out a bit rough as the power goes when I'm in the shower, covered with soap and shampoo. This, of course, turns my water ice cold! I later find out I activated the circuit breaker when I had both the air conditioner and the little electric water heater active at the same time. From now on, I will turn off any air conditioning while I shower. In any case, now I'm wide awake and refreshed! I dress, organize myself, and am at "Hola, Hola" for desayuno completo by 8:00 A.M.
8:35 A.M. I'm on a bus heading towards the Colegio Americano. On the bus ride out, I remain surprised at the entrepreneurial spirit, or perhaps survival instinct, of so many. The local buses here have a turnstile system. As you enter the front of the bus there are three steps up and about two feet of floor space, five feet of space in total, before one goes through the turnstile. You make certain you hang on to your ticket.
As I ride, when the bus stops for a red light or some traffic problem, men or boys will jump on the steps and try to sell the passengers some particular product. It might be any product from soft drinks to candy bars to cigarette lighters to whistles! The pitch is always the same. They just repeat the name of the product over and over and over. A boy selling Pepsi Colas would yell, "Pepsi Cola, Pepsi Cola," and again, "Pepsi Cola, Pepsi Cola." If no buyers, they jump back off and try their pitch along the bus windows. If the bus starts to move when they are on the steps, they leap off, often quite quickly. Sometimes three of four vendors will squeeze into the small area of floor space at the bus front, all hawking different products, and then they all scramble to get off the bus. At first I thought this was a very strange way to live, but I've learned they are just doing what is necessary to survive.
You must hang on to your ticket because bus "inspectors" often get on the buses, apparently to check on the honesty of the drivers. They will look at the paperwork the driver keeps on a clipboard up front, and then walk through the bus asking to see each passengers ticket, making sure no one is riding for free. There are some exceptions though. When a policia or armed militia person gets on the bus, I never see them pay. It appears wearing a uniform with a gun gets you a free ride. One does not have to ride very far to see beautiful architecture. Homes, businesses, office buildings and restaurants all often feature interesting exterior designs. I'm sincerely impressed with the beauty of many local buildings, both old and new. There are many people here who have a lot and wish to keep it. There are many who have nothing. Some work for more, some wish for more, some only despair. The further we head out to the suburbs, the more evidence of wealth we see, much like the States.
8:35 A.M. I've arrived at the Colegio Americano and am speaking with the Secretary to the Director. She explains that the Director is leading a workshop this morning but will be available later, and gives me an appointment for 11:30 A.M. This leaves me about two and one half hours to spare, so I decide to walk further out Avenida Espana to see what is there. It is another lovely day and so far quite comfortable in temperature, about seventy degrees. The sun has stayed mostly behind clouds and the clouds seem to be increasing. Who knows what will come later.
I've noticed out here in the suburbs there are actually bus stops, "Parada de Bus Forme Fila," every two blocks, with signs on posts! You must still wave at the bus to get them to stop, but you can't just wave them over anywhere as one does in the city. There is more order in the land of the rico. In any language you can find words that strike you as amusing when compared to your own language. That is certainly true of English and Spanish. Two of my favorite names I've seen are "Lavadero de Autos," which strikes me as a place cars use the restroom! In reality, it simply means carwash. Another favorite is a small restaurant called "Hamburgueseria Cannibals." Do they cook the meat, or are you just given a sharp knife and cut your own off the cow?
Throughout my days here in Asuncion, I have often stopped at one of the many news stands just to see what they sell and read the headlines in the "dairios." Everything is, of course, always in Spanish. But now, walking down Avenida Espana, in the land of the rico, the only news stand I see has "Playboy" in both English and Spanish editions. More English is spoken among the wealthy, and sex sells in any language! As I walk further, I also see several small "Centro de Campos," or what we call "strip centers" in the States, small centers with about ten shops, give or take a few. The architecture remains beautiful, especially the large homes along the avenida.
9:20 A.M. I sit on a bench to rest and write for a while. Two men walk by carrying large wicker baskets full of strawberries. One sees this often. Strawberries are very popular and evidently grow well in Paraguay. On my right about twenty yards stand two policia. One of them waves over a taxi which stops ten yards to my left. The policia is displeased with the taxi driver for some reason. I try not to watch directly as that is not a wise action to take here; but I do see the policia write out a ticket and hand it to the male taxi driver. A bit later the two policia stop a dark blue auto driven by a woman right in front of them. They speak briefly with her, then allow her to drive on. The policia are on foot, but seem to wave over cars indiscriminately to "check" paperwork. Now they pull over a red car driven by a young man, a young woman in the front passenger seat. He reaches for the glove box, presumably for paperwork. The man and the woman both get out of the car, each talking to a policia on their own side of the car. After about four minutes, they are given permission to leave. The policia are looking at me writing, so I think I will leave also.
Too late. They have now pulled over a small white pickup truck with two young men in it. I see paperwork handed out the driver's side window. The policia takes the paperwork over to the other policia standing on the curb, and they stand there talking. The driver of the pickup comes out and they are all talking by the curb. The driver is pointing at his vehicle and quite obviously displeased. The second policia walks away and pulls over a small white car with a woman driver. The driver of the truck appears to win his point and is handed back his paperwork and allowed to drive away. The white car is also allowed to depart quickly. It is interesting to watch how they pull over vehicles for no apparent reason other than they have decided to. I've pushed my luck though, and must move on now.
It is 10:25 A.M. as I leave my bench. As I walk by the policia they are waving over another auto, but I just keep walking. The policia are a heavy man and a thin man, both wearing the uniform of black pants and shoes, white shirt with black shoulder patches, black ties and military style black hats. There is gold trim on the shirts and hats. Both also carry black whistles, but I never saw or heard either of them blown. They take turns waving over the cars, first the thin one, then the heavy one, then the thin one, etc. I was sitting on a bench on Avenida Espana, and they are waving over cars turning right from San Martin unto Avenida Espana.
I cross San Martin and see a small store called "Casa Rica," and I'm now thirsty so I go in to get some liquid refreshment. What a pleasant surprise! It is a medium-sized gourmet grocery market much like a "Fresh Market" in the U.S. There is free cafe in small cups as you enter, "Cafe Belen," and I have a cup. It is quite unique in that the sugar is somehow already in with the coffee! I drink it black because it is already sweet - and I never drink coffee black. I am greatly surprised. I look around the store to discover products that I recognize! It is filled with American, British, and local high quality products. The meat and deli sections are superb, and the bakery wonderful. I'm completely in shock, but then I realize I'm in the middle of a wealthy neighborhood and the other shoppers, about twenty-five people, are all nicely dressed. It is an adult crowd, with only a few accompanying children. There is a lovely, young, model-like, "cafe woman" serving the coffee. I buy a big pretzel, some Snack Guazu, a chip that is half potato and half corn, and a soft drink. It is 11:00 A.M. as I start back toward the American High School. The sun is now out and it is warm and sticky again.
11:20 A.M. I'm back at the Colegio Americano, where the secretary immediately takes me in to see the Director. He is John, originally from Keokuk, Iowa. He is friendly, but obviously very busy. They open in eleven days for their American style school year and he has several new teachers in today for an orientation. We are regularly interrupted as we speak, but he informs me they have 650 students from age four through high school. They prefer to get the students young so they can compete well in English. One of their sixth grade students has grandfathers on both sides who were presidents of Paraguay! There is currently a security watch on because the Paraguayan government has just extradited a Palestinian terrorist to the U.S. from Ciudad del Este, and some general terrorist threats have been made, though not specifically toward the school. The Director emphasizes, however, that U.S. facilities must always remain alert to such things.
He writes me a "pass" for the day so that I may wander the grounds as I like, or take any photos I please, inviting me to stop back in his office when I'm done. He also informs me their land alone is worth US$5,000,000, without any buildings! I thank him and wander off, first to a combination theater and library. There appear to be a good variety of periodicals, as I see "The Economist," the "New Yorker," and "Rolling Stone." There is also a trophy case with many trophies, especially for basketball, both boys and girls. I continue to wander around their very beautiful facility, home of the "Gators," and then return to the Director's office. He shows me a copy of their five year plan, which is quite ambitious. He seems quite proud of their facility and, it appears, rightfully so. I'm certainly impressed. We continue to be interrupted though and it is obvious he is real busy. Thanking him again for his time on my behalf, I depart the school.
I'm out at the bus stop near the school at 12:47 P.M. trying to catch Linea 30-4 back to town. The first bus goes right by me despite my waving. It is full with people hanging out the door. The next one also goes by me, so I decide to walk toward town for a little bit. There is no bench at the bus stop by the school and I've had to stand, so might as well walk. After only a few blocks there is a bus stop with a bench and some shade, so I sit down to rest, write a little, and wait for another bus.
1:55 P.M. I finally catch a bus 30-4 heading to town and get off near the CCPA at 2:10 P.M. From there it is only a short walk to Parque Caballero and the Rio Paraguay, and within ten minutes I'm in the park. It is a fairly large park with a good number of people in it, adults and children, even in the middle of the day. It is certainly not a quiet place. There are many sounds and noises, but this park is made for children. It is filled with trees and an extraordinary amount of playground equipment. There is also, of course, a futbol field, mostly of loose sand.
A shantytown comes right to the edge of the park, but does not enter. That would be more than the government would permit. There are residents of shantytown whose front "door space" opens unto the park though. The high echelon of shantytown. There is a very large statue of General Bernardo Caballero near one corner of the park, overlooking the water, the shantytown, and the Asuncion skyline. The view of the skyline from the statue is magnificent if one chooses not to look down and ignore shantytown below. I wonder what the General thinks of the view?
A Paraguayan ghetto, however, is not like an American ghetto. One feels safe here and no one bothers or harasses you. You allow them their personal privacy and they allow you yours. I decide to take some photos of Paraguayan faces, asking permission first. One boy, @ age thirteen, asks for some money by rubbing his fingers together, but I tell him no, that I just won't take his photo then - but he wants it taken anyway. I'm hoping to get some interesting faces on camera with the film I've left. I do get some potentially excellent shots.
As I sit on a bench in the park about 3:00 P.M. writing some field notes, a boy I'd photographed comes over and says in English, "Hello. May I sit down?" I reply, "Please do." He tells me his name is Fabio, age fifteen, and he is studying English and would like to practice his English with me. Whenever I say something in Spanish, he says, "English, please." His English is limited, but he says he is studying hard to improve. He is also studying at CCPA and asks me questions about myself and my family that I answer in carefully selected English. After about fifteen minutes he tells me he must go and, "Thank you very much. Goodbye." I return to my writing, and then walk over to the CCPA. It is only a short walk.
3:45 P.M. I'm back at the CCPA, stopping first at the snack bar for a "Simba Guarana," an apple juice based soft drink that has sort of a ginger ale taste. Simba comes in three fruit flavors, all good, but I have gotten to really like the apple one. I then go to the library to try to meet Cynthia Hobbs, the school counselor. Roger Pugh, the Peace Corps volunteer I met earlier is in the library, so I join him at a small table and we talk for a while. I tell him about my visit to Colegio Americano this morning, and he finds me the address to Universidad Americana for a possible visit tomorrow. He also tells me he and his wife's assignments are up in three months, and then they are traveling to Berkeley, California, where their daughter is a graduate student, expecting a baby in October.
4:00 P.M. Cynthia Hobbs arrives to meet her scheduled appointment, a young man interested in studying for a year at a university in North Carolina or Indiana, where he has relatives. Cynthia is 5'7" tall and very thinly built. She is originally from Boston and studied at Bates College in Maine. She then worked for five years in Spain, and has now been in Paraguay for several years. She had compiled a good reference library and was now discussing options with Miguel when I join the conversation in her office. They discuss Duke, North Carolina, Indiana, Notre Dame, and Ball State! Having done my Bachelor's at Ball State, I contribute my knowledge and opinion. The discussion goes back and forth between Spanish and English. Miguel is given addresses for the five universities and Cynthia helps him with the composition of a letter to send off to them requesting information.
Cynthia is soft spoken and seems very patient. She exhibits excellent communication skills and a caring attitude. She seems to make Miguel comfortable. Miguel leaves at 5:00 P.M. and Cynthia tells me she has appointments right through until 7:30 P.M. tonight. We agree to meet for coffee at 5:00 P.M. tomorrow, so I can learn more about what she does. I then leave to go observe the English class of Hester Van Dycke, as I'm already late.
As I enter, she is giving the students their grades from a previously completed exercise, so I've missed little. The students are then assigned an exercise to walk around the room and ask each other what they do to stay in good physical condition, recording the answers in their workbooks. Ten minutes later, they are placed in four groups to discuss options for exercising and staying in shape. There are fourteen students tonight, three males and eleven females. The tall Asian young man from the other night is not in attendance. Both Iorit and Marta are here again. The teacher is dressed tonight in a simple blue and white patterned dress, a thin navy blue belt around her tiny waist, and navy blue moccasin style flat shoes. Her only jewelry consists of small diamond earrings and her wedding bands.
It is 5:35 P.M. and the students are now verbally reporting what they found out in their groups about exercise choices. They then listen to a tape about bicycling and answer questions about the tape, continuing with an exercise in their workbooks about bicycling. The fan is not on today, but the air conditioning unit is and one must again speak loudly to be heard. I often strain to hear the students soft voices. At 5:45 P.M. they switch to an exercise where a student is sent out of the room and then has to come back in and play detective to find which student is wearing a particular selected object, in this case a ring. It seems very simple and the students have no problem with it. They then return to listening to a tape on bicycling and answer more questions about it.
6:00 P.M. They switch to an exercise in their workbooks about families and answer questions about their own family. The students separate into pairs and interview each other about their own families, repeating the results of their conversations to the entire class. They appear more bored tonight and are not showing the same amount of enthusiasm as they did the other evening. Perhaps tonight’s exercises are too simple, perhaps it is the teacher, who seems strained herself tonight. She is a bit hoarse and seems to be having throat and voice problems.
6:15 P.M. The students are each given a piece of paper with a family role to play, and then they must walk around the room asking questions to find their "family." This appears to be the best exercise of the night as it gets loud, enthusiastic, and seems to get them awake and moving again. Chaos is not always a bad thing! They put together their family tree on the board, starting with their grandfather, "John Roberts." This exercise seems to work pretty well and the students seem to enjoy it. The teacher fails to complete this exercise because she says all the roles were not handed out due to absences. This is too bad, as the students were excited and now seem disappointed when they are cut off. It's back to a lesson in the workbook. It is 6:33 P.M. and the next ten minutes are spent in virtual silence except for a few whispers. The students check their answers verbally during the last few minutes of the class and it is over for the evening. I again thank the teacher for allowing me to sit in and then she is off to her next class. It is 6:47 P.M. as I take a break also.
7:05 P.M. The teacher, Senor Aleides Noquera, arrives and opens the classroom door. There are only seven students to start tonight, five female and two male. The instructor jokes about the students operating on Paraguayan time. He asks the students to look over an exercise in their book, while he steps out to get something to drink at the snack bar. He is back four minutes later with a Coca Cola, drinking through a straw as the Paraguayans do. The students have continued working on the assigned exercise in silence. They now go over the answers verbally. A few minutes later, it's on to another exercise, writing a short paragraph in response to a question in their workbooks. Each of the students then reads their paragraph to the class and it is critiqued by both the teacher and other students.
7:45 P.M. The students are given a photocopied sheet with another question about which they are to write another paragraph. The teacher walks around the room looking at their individual work, and then they respond verbally again. Tonight the teacher wears brown pants, belt and shoes, with a yellow and brown striped shirt open at the collar. I find out the teacher's called "Rey" for short, due to the difficult spelling and pronunciation of his given and family name. 7:57 P.M. The students are now asked to look at six individual pictures of people in their workbooks and write about their probable occupations and any other special characteristics they may note about them, e.g., one is pregnant.
At 8:07 P.M. I'm waved out of the room by Cynthia Hobbs, who tells me she is sorry, but she can't meet me tomorrow because she forgot she has a board meeting for an organization she is active in. She is booked up until the middle of next week and I don't believe I'll still be here then. My funds will probably not last that long. She does the kind of work I'm interested in, and I would really like to spend some time with her, but such is life. I give her a business card and e-mail address, saying I hope to hear from her, and then return to class.
The students are now listening to a taped conversation and answering questions about it. Then it's back to their workbooks to read a three paragraph story about Mohandas Gandhi, and again answer questions about it with each other and then with the teacher. The pattern of teaching is very consistent here. Workbooks are the basis of their English teaching at all levels. The students, I must admit, seem to read reasonably well in English. I have not really seen as much conversation, however, and I do wonder about their ability to converse in English.
8:29 P.M. As the students continue with their workbook exercise, the teacher plays a tape of "elevator" music in the background. Right now we are listening to "Strangers in the Night." They now go to working with simple past and present perfect, and the use of "when" as a connector. Has they read their answers back, it is clear this is more difficult for them. Tenses always are in my mind, as I have the same trouble with my Spanish. This is the final exercise of the night, as class is dismissed at 8:45 P.M. I thank the teacher again for allowing me to sit in and we leave, as it has been a long day for both of us.
I still have the mile and one half walk back to my hotel plus I'm a bit hungry. There I am, sounding like a South American again with eating late! Probably something light, we shall see what I pass on the way to the hotel. I find nothing appealing on route, going straight to my hotel and in my room by 9:20 P.M. I'm still hungry though, so walk over to a little place by the plaza for a small plate of pasta, then right back to the hotel. I'm quite tired now, as I wash up and hit the sack by 10:30 P.M.
7:45 A.M. It's rise and shine. Well, at least rise and glow slightly! My body is feeling the effects of time and travel and pushing myself. Each new day's potential excitement keeps me going, along with te, cafe, and a newly developed South American adrenalin of my own. It is 8:50 A.M. and I'm back at my window table at "Hola, Hola" for another desayuno completo to start my day right.
I was struck during the night by thoughts of a woman I saw when I was walking back from the CCPA last night. She was working a street corner, trying to sell candy to people in cars stopped at a red light. She stood in the middle of the street, "walking" up to the different cars. I use the term walking in an entirely different sense. She was an adult, @ age thirty-five, but severely handicapped with both of her feet on backwards. I know of no other way to say that. It is obviously a deformity she was born with, wearing sandals backwards and moving along in a "disjointed" way. It is the kind of birth deformity that would have been corrected immediately after birth in the U.S., insurance, private donations, or "pro bono" work by doctors caring for her.
One sees much of that kind of deformity in South America and it pulls at your mind and heart. It is one of the many examples why more doctors are needed here. But how does a U.S. educated doctor give time to the Peace Corps when they start their own career so heavily in debt under the American system? I would like to see something done to help that situation, some type of system where Peace Corp work results in forgiveness of certain amounts of educational debt. It is so hard to look at these poor people. It is so hard to turn away. The heart bleeds and the eyes water.
After breakfast, I need to get back on a bus and try to find the "Universidad Americana." Many times the buses are crowded here and you have to stand. The system is designed so you only enter the bus by the front door and exit only by the side rear, which seems to work fine. As you get near your stop, you simply work your way toward the rear. On some buses there is a cord to pull that tells the driver to stop. Pull it and he may stop in the next block, or he may slam on the brakes, yank the bus to the right, and stop right there. In any case, one always hangs on tight to a rail somewhere on the bus. When standing, one spreads their feet on the floor, spreads their arms overhead, grips the rail and hangs on, dancing to the rock and roll of that famous Paraguayan musical group, "El Buses." It can be fun! If there is no cord to pull, you simply step down into the stairwell by the rear door, push a button there, and the driver will stop to let you off as soon as he can. You better always be ready to move!
9:25 A.M. I finish my breakfast, stop back in my room for a few minutes of organization time, and then it's off on another adventure. I catch Linea 37A to head towards the "Universidad Americana," but am a little confused as to where I'm going and ride several blocks too far. Walking back to the area of the school, I ask directions of a woman on the street and find I'm okay, heading in the right direction. We give each other the "thumbs up" sign. That is a common practice here and seems to stand for: "Okay," "I've got it," "I understand," "Do you understand?," or "I see you've got it." In any case, it seems to be a wonderful international communication tool.
10:10 A.M. I've arrived at the "Universidad Americana." It is a new and very nice building, done in the traditional Paraguayan style of white stucco colonial with red tile roof, located in a middle-class area of Asuncion. I explain my request to see President Andres Benko to the reception personnel. A phone call is made and I'm quickly escorted to his office to meet with him and his son, who assists him with the school. President Benko never gives his son's name, but simply introduces him as, "This is my son." I explain what I'm doing in Paraguay and ask them about their school.
They tell me they have four hundred students, all studying business curriculums. Their program is a ten semester, five year, program. They do not require English, but strongly recommend it as they emphasize international business. They say they would love to become involved with the University of Tennessee in professor exchange, ESL/business language teachers, or perhaps our Language and World Business program which I discuss with them. It's a small school, but their academic program appears well organized and they have hopes for growth. They work some now with the University of Miami, particularly in English language programs.
We have a nice conversation overall, I thank them for their time, and inform them I'll let the appropriate people at Tennessee know of their program and their interest. I could not, of course, promise any return interest, but tell them I'll do what I can. It is just after 11:00 A.M. when I head out to catch my return bus. The ride is predominantly through middle-class areas of Asuncion, neat homes but not very large, and is a nice look at a different side of the city.
By 11:25 A.M. I'm back in town and wandering the "Plaza Mercado." Standing around the central fountain area, I hear several young men speaking English and go over to say hello, only to discover they are Peace Corps volunteers who work in the Paraguayan countryside. They come to Asuncion the last Friday of every month to collect their pay, spend the weekend, and visit with their fellow volunteers who are normally scattered all over the country on their assignments. They are Michigan Paul #1, Michigan Paul #2, Oklahoma Jim, and New York Dan. They are passing a cup of "terere" among them and invite me to join them in drinking, which I gladly do. It is quite an interesting drink. You pour water over a mix of various herbs and grains, and then suck it up through your Paraguayan silver straw. It is the same system used for drinking mate, hot or cold. Strange as it may sound, the terere is pretty good and, after several rounds of the cup, I am welcome among them as they invite me to join them for lunch.
As we start to walk toward their choice, "Space Fast Food," Andi comes up to me and says hello. Andi is a twenty-five year old young woman whom I met briefly last night in the lobby of my hotel, as she was checking in. She is from London, England, and has been teaching English in Iquique, Chile, for the last seven months. She is now traveling throughout South America before seeking another position. She joins us and then another Peace Corps volunteer, Washington, D.C., Dan, joins us also. They want to go to "Space," the "McDonald's" of Paraguay, because they all live out far from the city, in the middle of nowhere, and this is a major luxury for them. Cheap and plenty to eat, they say as what is now seven of us march in. I order a Space Burger, consisting of Hamburguesa Completeo, Papas Fritas, y Simba Guarana. It is quite good and definitely filling.
Paul #1 and Paul #2 tell me they are both working in positions involving farm animals and animal science knowledge. The other three are working in positions involving community health issues, sanitation, and especially water quality and latrine sanitation improvement. They all say it can be boring in the countryside, but all are glad they are in Paraguay and feel they are doing useful work. "Small steps" is the term most used by them to describe their work.
Paul #1, Paul #2, and Oklahoma Jim all say they have things to do and excuse themselves after lunch. D.C. Dan and New York Dan tell us they are going to the "Mercado Quatro" and invite Andi and I to join them. They want to run some errands first, as do Andi and I, so we agree to meet at 2:30 P.M. in the lobby of the hotel where Andi and I are staying. I go to the post office to mail a card to my son, buy a fresh bottle of water at a small corner store, and then go back to the hotel to rest for a few minutes.
I'm in the lobby at 2:30 P.M., as is Andi. The two Dan's arrive a few minutes late, but by 2:45 P.M. we are all on a Linea #8 bus heading to the "Mercado Quatro." Ten minutes later we are there, discovering a mass of jammed streets, jammed in merchants, and jammed in buyers, all moving and talking at once. The aisles are very narrow, but, in contrast, the variety of items for sale is very wide. One cannot tell how large the mercado is because you can only view a small section at a time. It goes on for at least several blocks in all directions though. N.Y. Dan tells us that all the markets used to simply be called mercado uno, mercado dos, etc., but that over the years they've all disappeared for various reasons and only "Mercado Quatro" seems to be only one of two to survive. N.Y. Dan wasn't sure about the other survivor. The mercado is an interesting place and reminds one of a more organized Ciudad del Este. We walk around for forty-five minutes as both Dan's buy a few small items then decide to walk back to town and our hotels.
4:00 P.M. We are back near our hotel and D.C. Dan suggests going to "El Bar de Mi Ciudad" for a drink. We all agree and the four of us sit at an outdoor table on Palma, the table actually standing in the street. We talk about everything and nothing for two hours as I learn a lot about life in the Peace Corps and the hopes and dreams of Dan and Dan. Andi, in contrast, is a drifter and has no goal yet beyond seeing the world.
I talk at length with D.C. Dan, who asks my advice about a master’s degree program he is considering. His Peace Corps work has gotten him interested in urban and regional planning, and we discuss his options and some of the schools he is considering for graduate work. I had this similar discussion with Paul #1 at lunch, who is looking at doing a master’s program in animal science and has written the University of Tennessee. We chat about the program at Tennessee as I find it enjoyable to do a little counseling again. Paul #1 and D.C. Dan are both very sharp, impressive young men, who seem to sincerely care about the world and its peoples.
6:30 P.M. The Dan's suggest meeting at "Spur's," a local bar and dance place at 10:00 P.M. tonight that is near their hotel. Andi agrees but I tell them I'll leave the late night activities to the young, and decline to join them. We do all plan on attending the Saturday morning "Palma Paseo" though, and agree to look for each other there. They leave and I stroll over to the "Plaza Mercado" and just sit on a bench for a while as I'm tired now. I've picked up a sweater for my son, so all my shopping necessities are now done. All that is left for me is to have a good time over the next few days with the little money I've left. My hotel is paid through the next three nights, so I only need have enough funds to get to the airport here in Asuncion, and then home from the airport in the States. I have worked long and hard the last month, so it will be nice to just relax and reflect for a few days.
7:30 P.M. I walk back to "Space" for a dinner consisting of a very large chocolate chip milkshake! It is just what a former Wisconsin schoolboy needs to get the blood flowing again as I sit at a window table and put some of my thoughts on paper. It is 9:00 P.M. before I stop writing, thinking, contemplating, and writing some more between sips of my shake. It is time to walk back to my hotel, wash up, and get a good night's rest. The heat and dust of the city can wear one out. It both drains and energizes me. Just after 10:00 P.M., I'm in bed for the night.
7:15 A.M. I'm awake and moving. I need to see the American Airlines people to get my flight home firmed up, as there is only one flight a day from Asuncion to Miami, Florida. Fortunately, they are only three blocks away, and by 8:10 A.M. I'm at their office. They list me on the overnight "red eye," leaving Asuncion at 6:00 P.M. and arriving in Miami the next morning, after a stop in Sao Paulo, Brazil. I'm told it costs about US$15.00 for a cab to the airport, plus a US$15.00 Paraguay departure tax. This means I must allow myself US$30.00 to get out of the country, plus what's needed to get home in the States. The budget looks very tight, but once I'm in the States I can make some adjustments with my bank card and checkbook. There is not much in either one, but there is enough for the job. Today, I just want to enjoy the "Palma Paseo" and the faces of the Paraguayans.
8:30 A.M. Time for some desayuno. This morning I decide to try the "Lido Bar," a very busy place located on Palma, just across from the "tomb." It is the single most popular place in Asuncion among the locals and I immediately see why. I wished I'd come here earlier, but it was always so crowded. No wonder. The desayuno completo is only US$2.20 and includes te or cafe con leche, and three large slices of toast. More te and toast than one receives at "Hola, Hola," but no juice. It is a very good breakfast though, and the "Lido Bar" is packed. It is a restaurant, not a bar, despite the name. It may have been a bar once though, based upon the shape of the dining area. It looks like a large horseshoe bar with all the waitresses behind it, along with the kitchen. All the diners sit on bar stools outside the horseshoe. There are no tables in the place. If you wish to dine, you stand and wait for an open stool, sometimes the standees being several people deep! The "Lido Bar" is very inexpensive and very good, early in the day or late at night, with plenty of local flavor and atmosphere. I'm certain that I'm the only American in the place at the moment.
I stroll around the paseo a bit before meeting Erin and Monica, two young women in their mid-twenties from Santa Cruz, California. They have been traveling South America for the last four months, and are new arrivals to Asuncion. We get to talking and decide to spend the day together, me serving as a bit of a tour guide! I've been here a week now and have experienced so much. We start by strolling the paseo for a while, and then walk over to the "Casa Viola" to see the Picasso exhibit. The young ladies view the exhibit while I sit in the courtyard to rest and write for a few minutes. I'm happy to do so, finding a chair in the shade, for the weather is now warm and steamy again.
It is 11:10 A.M. After the Picasso tour, we walk back to Palma and enjoy the color and excitement of the paseo. Tomorrow is "El Dia de la Amistad," friendship day, here in Paraguay, their version of America's Valentine’s Day. As tomorrow is a Sunday, the day of rest here, the celebration is today. Many signs are up commemorating the day. A large portable bandstand has been set up on Palma near the "tomb," and a Paraguayan band is playing. The band is amusing to watch for an American, as they hold copies of the words in their hands and sing "Hey Jude" in Spanish. It's a beautiful song in any language. I buy several food items at the various escuela "bake" sales, as the food is very good and quite inexpensive, and I believe in supporting the efforts of these young people. I also photograph a variety of interesting scenes and faces.
1:10 P.M. We catch a Linea 8 bus and ride out to the "Mercado Quatro." The young ladies want to go and I'd like to explore it a little more myself. It is an amazing place, with total chaos and absolute order existing as one and the same! It is impossible to comprehend the number of merchants and amount of products for sale that can be crammed into various tiny spaces and still allow room for customers and peaceful coexistence. Everyone must hustle to survive in a day-to-day existence society, yet avoid stepping on each other. It is as if they all seem to understand the other, operating out of one head, one mind and over several hundred years of tradition, handed down from generation to generation.
One can often see what appears to be three generations of family working in the same stall or small shop. Children at age five already know all the right words and are hawking their family wares. The space they occupy is their heritage, their birthright, their legacy, their family heirloom, and no one shall ever take it away. There are small boys and girls who, should I return to Paraguay, I would expect to see working their same stall in ten, twenty-five or fifty years. Just as in "Fiddler on the Roof," tradition is of much importance. The western world has invaded much of Paraguay, and even the products sold at "Mercado Quatro," but it has not invaded the tradition, the importance, the way of life. I wonder if it ever can?
As the Peace Corps volunteers told me, they change nothing noticeable in the culture, just "small steps" here and there, mostly in the area of sanitation. The Peace Corps had not reached the "Mercado Quatro." The streets, alleys, and passages are filled with trash and waste. Yet I purchase a soda, oranges, some "Sopa Paraguay" and am not afraid to eat many things here; but there are others my American sensibilities cannot handle. The meat area, or "Casa de Entrails" as the Peace Corps people called it, is beyond what I can handle. All located in one building, various intestines hang as sausages, chopped as part of other dishes, and some just hang there. The Paraguayans cook and eat the stomach lining of cows as a delicacy. It is mixed in a kind of pinkish/orange creamy sauce. I've seen it in cafeteria's, but have chosen not to try it.
D.C. Dan told me a story about how the natives in his village will dig a hole about five feet deep, put an iron rod through a skinned cow's head, and suspend the head halfway down in the hole. The hole is then covered with a piece of metal or tin, a fire is built on top of the metal, and then four or five hours later they pull the head out, all grab a knife and fork, and dig in! No plates are used, just cut off a piece and eat it. D.C. Dan says it's not so bad once you get used to the idea! I guess that same is true of "Mercado Quatro." Both Erin and Monica are vegetarians though, and Erin does not look well after a short time in the "Casa de Entrails," so we go back into the packed streets and other stalls.
3:50 P.M. After walking around awhile, we take a bus back and are now by the Catedral a few blocks from the ladies hotel, and they head back to their room to clean up. They say they are going to a movie tonight, "Batman Returns," supposedly playing at a local theater in English with Spanish subtitles. I decline their invite to join them as Batman was not of interest to me. They are leaving tomorrow to travel to Salta, Argentina, so we wish each other well and part.
4:45 P.M. I'm back at the "Lido Bar," enjoying a hot te con leche. I look around the place and count forty stools, and fifteen employees, six wearing kitchen green, eight in waitress orange, and one maintaining the cash register. My waitress has a beautiful, angelic face and a thin healthy looking body. She is very nice, friendly, and smiles a lot. Unfortunately, she has three and a half upper front teeth missing! These people eat a heavy sugar diet, have never been taught to brush their teeth, and most have never seen a dentist except to pull a tooth that is causing great pain. There are few dentists and only the rich can afford them. It is very strange to see otherwise handsome men and beautiful women with so many teeth gone. My waitress is so nice though, and I get a big smile and "gracias" for the tip I leave. My tip is only average by American standards, but in this country all tips are much appreciated as many don't tip at all, and food servers earn very little.
5:10 P.M. I walk the one block to "Space" and sit at a window table to write some. It has started to drizzle lightly. I hope this weather is not a prelude to tomorrow, my last full day in Paraguay. I want it to be hot and sunny tomorrow when I go back to the Expo to enjoy more of the smiles and friendliness of the people of Paraguay. Even "Space," a fast food place, is filled with laughter one does not usually hear at a "McDonald's" or "Burger King." This is a nice place. My first impression was "fast food = negative," but the food here is good, reasonably priced and varied. In addition to various burger and chicken dishes, they also serve four kinds of pasta daily, pizza, a salad bar, a "paella," and a "sopa de la dia," plus ice cream and some nice pastries. There are three levels of tables, plus a lower level with clean restrooms. "Space" has space, and allows you yours.
5:50 P.M. I decide to have dinner and order the "Space Burger Completo" again. At home, I'm mostly a vegetarian, but on the road I like to eat what the locals eat, plus in many places holding to a vegetarian diet is not easy due to the choices available. In any case, for US$3.25 I have a burger covered with lettuce, cheese, ham, tomato and egg, plus a large order of fries and what has become my favorite cold drink, a Simba Guarana. The Peace Corps people told me it is apple based and also comes in pineapple based "pina," and grapefruit based "pomelo." I drink very little soda at home, but a lot of apple juice, so that is probably why I like it.
"Space" is not a true fast food place by American standards, but is by Paraguayan standards. The orders here are cooked individually and not sitting under a heat lamp, except for a few empanada snack items. The people also eat their hamburgers with a knife and fork here, so you are given a real knife and fork on your tray, no plastic imitations. This is hard for me. As an American, I want to pick up that burger and wolf it down in great bites. However, the hamburguesa completo is large in Paraguay and can be a bit "messy" with so much on it, so I try to stick to the utensils. I'm a bit crude, particularly with my left hand, but I get the job done. It is a very filling meal and I sit at my window table quite full and content.
6:25 P.M. As I sit, I reflect on several things. This morning I gave away an Arizona tee shirt and a Tennessee tee shirt to two boys, both about age twelve, sitting by the plaza. I had worn them both and they were dirty, so I told them they need to “lavado,” wash them. They were thrilled with their "regalos" and smiled and waved at me the several times I saw them throughout the day. I like doing these kinds of things. It feels good and they are an appreciative people. If it has American writing on it, it's in demand here.
I think also about the "ugly" money here. It is actually quite pretty and colorful when new, but they keep their bills in circulation forever here to cut costs. Thus their bills are, more often than not, quite dirty, wrinkled, holes or tears in them, held together with tape, and sometimes thin enough to let light through. It doesn't seem to be an issue of any real importance to anyone, but I find it interesting. Finally, I'm thinking about the people I've photographed the last few days and hoping I get some photos as interesting as their faces. I'm excited about my last full day, and I'm very sad it is to be my last full day. One never knows what their future will bring, but I hoped that more of South America was in mine.
6:40 P.M. I walk back to the hotel. The rain had stopped for now, hopefully a good sign for tomorrow. I've traded or given away every item I had with Tennessee or Arizona on it except one Arizona shirt and one Tennessee hat, both of which I'm now wearing. I'll probably give those away before leaving Paraguay if I see a face I like for some reason.
As I walk back to the hotel, I run into Andi coming out the door. She is on her way to a movie, but I decline to join her. In my room, ten minutes later, I change my mind and walk the two blocks to the movie theater to join her, but then couldn't find her. I stay anyway and watch "Junior," in English with Spanish subtitles, and "Casper," entirely in Spanish. A double feature, something now uncommon in America. It is a large theater, located in the basement of a high rise, and much larger than most theaters in America. There are many rows of seats and steps going downward instead of a ramp like in the States. The seats are quite nice and comfortable, and there are many families in attendance for both the films. The crowd is very well behaved as a whole. It is interesting to observe "Casper" entirely in another language.
Between the showing of the films, there is an intermission when snacks are sold at the lobby snack bar, but there are also two vendors who come down the aisles into the theater with trays of popcorn, candy, and soda, just like at a ballgame in the States! I've never seen this done in a movie theater before. It seems like a good idea to me. The size, the arrangement, and the numbered rows and seats of the theater lead one to believe it is also used for other events, such as concerts or plays. The large screen is on a stage. All in all, I'm glad I went, though quite tired now as I walk the two blocks back to the hotel. It is 11:15 P.M. and I'm going to bed.
8:45 A.M. I have slept late for the first time on this trip perhaps. I no longer remember for certain. By the time I shower and dress it is 9:40 A.M., and I head for the "Lido Bar" for breakfast. Their te con leche completo is just what I need to start the day right. After breakfast, as I walk through the "Plaza Mercado," I'm reminded that is Sunday and that means things are a little different here. Only about half of the merchants are open, about a quarter are closed, and the other quarter are replaced by "Sunday only" vendors dealing in stamps, coins, and small antiques.
I spend a short time browsing through these "new" things when I hear voices that sound like Wisconsin accents. I'm right! Shockingly, I meet several families who are from Port Washington, Wisconsin, where I had my first teaching and coaching position many, many, years ago! We toss around a few names and discover some we know in common. They are members of a Christian group who have been building a cistern project in the Chaco. They are enjoying their last few hours in Paraguay before flying home. Such a big world, such a small world, and today is "El Dia de la Amistad." It's off to a nice start!
I sit on a bench for a bit just to write and think. The weather has cooled this morning, no sun so far, a light breeze, and I have a sweater on over my tee shirt. This is the first time I've worn more than a tee shirt in seven days. I'm comfortable though as my thoughts turn to the Expo. I see Andi heading for breakfast and ask her about the movie last night. She tells me that when I didn't want to go, she changed her mind and didn't go either, heading for a big dinner instead. She's a very thin woman, but I've observed she eats quite a lot! She spends a lot of energy traveling though and, like me, she walks a lot.
Unlike me, she also parties and dances a lot! Andi tells me she has decided to leave Asuncion and is catching a bus for Ciudad del Este in a few hours. We wish each other a good trip and part.
It is 11:45 A.M. I'm debating catching a bus now and heading for the Expo. It is still cloudy and cool. I change my mind though and decide to head back to the "Lido Bar" for lunch. I've heard their "Sopa de Pescado" is the best in Paraguay and I want to try it while I still can. Now was the time and it was a wise choice. The fish soup is absolutely wonderful, creamy, big chunks of fish, nice spices, all in a huge bowl, plus two large, fresh, moist rolls on the side to soak up the last of the soup with. Magnificent. I have no idea of the ingredients, and perhaps my American sensibilities don't even want to know, but it was excellent and very filling. The cost of only US$3.25 is also a joy to those on a budget. It's their most popular dish, and I've observed many enjoying it each time I've come into the "Lido Bar." Now I understand why.
I have the same waitress as last night, the beautiful one with the missing front teeth. I think she wants to go out with me! She ask my plans for the day and I tell her. She ask what time I'm going to the Expo and I tell her no special time, just sometime here after lunch. She writes a note on a napkin and hands it to me. It says, "I am finished at 14:30." I guess that means she wants to come with me! I smile and say nothing but, "Entiende." We make a little small talk and then I leave the restaurant.
I sit on the steps of the "tomb" across the street thinking. It would be interesting to spend some time with a local Paraguayan woman, but I'm about out of money and am unsure of what it is she really wants from me. I wasn't sure of all the words in our conversation, but I think she would like me to father a child for her! The Peace Corps volunteers informed me that this kind of thing can happen. They like to mix races here, and especially like tall or intelligent Americans. I'm certainly not tall, so she must think I'm intelligent! She seems to be a poor, hard-working, waitress, but I know nothing of her personally. It is 12:45 P.M. as I continue to ponder the issue. Should I be flattered? Frightened? Go with the flow? Run as fast as I can? Some things are interesting, but not so clear. If I had more money, I might take a chance. But I don't, so that settles it.
N.Y. Dan told me that the Paraguayans believe that mixing the races improves the blood, and even though it is a Catholic country in fact, in practice it is very acceptable for single women to have children. The women often try to pick out someone to father a child for them because they want children, but don't necessarily want to be married. They are willing to take care of a child, but don't want to take care of a husband too. Paraguayan men are often considered lazy by the Paraguayan women. Perhaps that is what this beautiful toothless waitress wants from me? I'm flattered but choose not to participate. Besides, no short white guys with bad eye sight are probably really needed in Paraguay.
1:45 P.M. I finally catch a bus for the Expo. It is a Linea 44A instead of a 44B, so we go a different and much longer way, but I'm pleased. We travel through parts of the city I've seen, but also parts I haven't seen. We drive through the "Embassy Row" section and past the "Recoleta Cemetery." I debate getting off the bus and walking around some but then remember it is Sunday and all will be closed except the cemetery. Even from the bus window, the cemetery is beautiful. Death here, as in Argentina and most of South America, is an important event and much money is spent on family crypts and monuments, even by the poor. Proportionate to income, the poor spend even more than the rich. It is the one thing they can do for "familia" that last forever. Later the bus travels through farmer's fields filled with cows grazing, and at one point I see the international airport not too far off in the distance. We soon circle back into the city, however, and arrive at the Expo, but from the opposite direction as I arrived last week. I took the scenic route!
2:20 P.M. I've paid my US$2.50 admission and am sitting on a bench inside the main entrance of the Expo writing and watching the people go by. Directly across from me is an exhibition of equipment by "Phoenix," which appears to be a company that makes some kind of gasoline pumps and associated equipment. I watch mostly people though. It is my last full day to observe the smiling faces of the Paraguayan people, and especially the lovely Paraguayan women! I've no option but to leave tomorrow, but I'm not ready. Maybe I'll just stay right here on this bench until the park is empty and the last display comes down. Finally I begin to get up and walk around, more slowly than I've ever walked at a fair. But I have nowhere to rush to now, just relax and see what I can see in the time I have left. It is still gray and the air is cool, but it is a happy Sunday afternoon crowd here on "El Dia de la Amistad." All ages are here, including many family groups.
I've done nothing of real importance, but have a little cambio fun with the Maka Guarani here. I've ended up with four items I don't really need, but I feel for these people. They got a sweater, my last Arizona tee shirt, my Tennessee hat, and US$6.00 from me, in exchange for two wooden flutes, a small woven bag, and a woven waist sash. They seemed happy and convinced they got the better of the deal, and that's okay. I'm sitting on a bench in a tee shirt, dark has fallen, and it is quite cool! Perhaps I should have kept the sweater? I came to South America with fourteen Tennessee and three Arizona shirts and seventeen Tennessee hats. I have none of them going home with me. I've spread UT stuff all over Argentina and Paraguay and, in return, I have three Argentina tee shirts from fellow futbol fans and a variety of crafts and art work! It's been interesting and fun.
It is now 5:45 P.M. and I'm feeling the cool night air. I believe I'll get some comida and take the bus on back to the hotel. I go to a small stand and order another hamburguesa completo. I've gotten to really like them as they taste good, are inexpensive, and you can't get anything like it in the States. The wind had died down and it was not so cool now, so just my tee shirt was okay again. It is even warm enough now that I decide to stay a little longer. So I wander among buildings and exhibits that I've not been in today. I shoot a few final photos also.
7:50 P.M. I'm back near the front gate, where I turn and just stand there, looking back at the park and the people. It is very crowded now and people are still coming in the gate. I don't want to leave. I know when I leave the park tonight it is over. I'll still be in Paraguay most of tomorrow, but I'll be packing and off to the airport. This day was the final chapter and I didn't want the book to end. I stand there thinking: Rohayhu Paraguay, Rohayhu Argentina, Rohayhu Uruguay, Rohayhu Sud America, I love you. Waiting until my watch passes 8:00 P.M., I walk out the front gate. In a crowd of happy people, my eyes are watering. There is a long line of backed up buses and it is 8:15 P.M. before I get on a Linea 44A bus back to the city, and 8:30 P.M. before the bus actually gets rolling. I'm seated by a window taking in everything that goes by and hoping it is the last time only for now, and not forever.
It is almost exactly 9:00 P.M. as I walk back into Room #5 at the Hispania Hotel. I feel very tired. Deciding I must have one more "Simba Guarana" though, I march out to the lobby and say to the Korean owner, "Uno mas Simba, por favor." He laughs and gets me one from the cooler for my uno mil, US$.50. I tell him I'll be leaving tomorrow and we talk about both of our travels and my current stay in Paraguay. He is a well-traveled man and an interesting person in general. We talk about nothing specific, but just friendly words among amigos. I've been here ten nights and we have come to know and like each other. It has been pleasant, but it is almost 10:00 P.M. now and I'm growing weary, so I excuse myself and go back to my room to write a little. Soon it is enough for tonight though. I need to organize my things, but I can do that in the morning. It is 10:25 P.M. and I need sleep.
8:15 A.M. I decide to get out of bed after being awake for much of the night. Everything I had seen and done was rolling over in my head. I will be tired the next few days. I take a long shower and then go to work packing my things for the long trip home. I have more things than I came with due to cambios and small purchases, plus a few items are breakable and need to be packed carefully. I'm an experienced packer, however, so the job is soon completed.
9:35 A.M. I'm ready for breakfast, informing the hotel owner I'll be back to check out later this morning. It is cool with a light rain falling as I walk outside. I stop at a panaderia first to purchase some pastries, and then also buy a chipa from a vendor. It is more than I need at the moment, but it is my last chance to buy some of these wonderful Paraguayan treats and part of my purchases will serve as my lunch while waiting at the airport later.
I cannot say goodbye to Asuncion without another cup of te con leche at the "Lido Bar," ordering it solo this morning. The waitresses here are very good and they quickly recognize people after only a few visits. I always leave a small tip when many locals don't, so they definitely know me. I receive a big smile and "hola" when I take a seat. One of the interesting things about the "Lido Bar" is that the "Sopa de Pescado" is so popular that it is ordered by locals any time of day or night. Several customers are enjoying it now, as it again looks wonderful. I'm very tempted to have one more bowl, but I can't bring myself to have fish soup for breakfast, though it is now 10:00 A.M. I'll gladly get by with another cup of mate. Besides, if I've calculated correctly, I barely have enough cash to get to the airport, so I enjoy my cup, smile at the lovely, toothless, woman who seems still interested in me and depart.
I walk slowly back to towards the hotel in a continued light mist, gazing about, wondering what I may have missed in this vibrant and delightful city. I take my last walk through the "Plaza Mercado," but speak to no one. I'm too sad this morning. Just as when I left Parana, Argentina, the sun hides and the sky weeps. I'm back in my hotel room by 10:25 A.M., and do my final few items of preparation before leaving. By 10:35 A.M. my luggage is next to the front door in the lobby as I say goodbye to the Korean owner and his charming Paraguayan wife. We shake hands and wish each other well.
10:40 A.M. My luggage is at the curb and I am able to wave down a taxi immediately and I'm on my way to the airport, three pieces of luggage plus my backpack on. I'd been told the fare to the airport was $30,000 Guarani (US$15.00), but the driver says that is incorrect, it is $35,000 Guarani (US$17.50). Fortunately, I'd allowed for this possibility, still having $36,000 Guarani cash, some odd coins in my pocket, a US$20.00 bill in my wallet for the Paraguay departure tax, and a US$50.00 traveler's check for use in the States to return home. We head to the international airport, driving down Avenida Espana, by the Colegio Americano, past many lovely homes, and through Luque and by the shops of the instrument makers. It is a fairly long ride, arriving at the airport at 11:15 A.M. I pay the driver, tossing in the extra $1000 Guarani as a tip. I resemble a pack mule as I enter the airport, having no money for baggage help, but I'm here! I've pushed the margin but I've done it!
I take a seat near the closed American Airline's check in counter and wait for them to open. I must stick close to my chair and luggage until they open. It is now 11:55 A.M. Shortly after noon, an American Airline's employee appears briefly at their counter and I ask her about checking my bags so I don't have to watch them. She informs me that was not possible now because they must pass security first, and the security for this flight doesn't begin until 3:00 P.M. I settle in my seat, having almost three hours to wait.
Looking around my area, the airport appears rather new, clean, pleasant, and quite open and airy architecturally. American Airlines also appears to be the only U.S. based airline that flies here, all of the major South American airlines being represented though. The American counter is flanked on one side by Lapsa of Paraguay and on the other by Aerolinas Argentinas. The walls of the airport are decorated in red/orange brick, grays, or off-whites. The floor is hard rubber, black with grooves in it. The chairs are dark blue molded plastic and very hard. Unfortunately, very hard. Lucky Strike cigarettes are advertised throughout the building, an oddity to Americans accustomed to no advertising of tobacco products. Several Maka Guarani are wandering the airport attempting to sell their usual craft products. Young shoeshine boys are also evident, but I'm in tennis shoes so they do not bother with me.
It is 12:20 P.M. as my chair hardens by the minute. 1:20 P.M. Sitting in an airport is not my favorite part of travel. I've eaten the extra food I'd brought with me for lunch, so there is little else to do. I can't nap as I must keep an eye on my luggage. I'll sure feel better when security opens.
3:10 P.M. The security check in area opens, after about thirty minutes of my watching them set up. It is quite complete security though, as they ask me many questions such as: "Who packed your bags?" "When were they packed?" "Where were they packed?" "Where have they been since they were packed?" "Have they been out of your sight for even a moment?" "Are you carrying anything for anyone else?" "Has anyone asked you to carry anything for them?" "Do you have any electronic equipment in your luggage?" "Battery operated equipment?" "Camera?" "Shaver?" "Watch?" You are informed that your luggage will be x-rayed and if there is the slightest doubt or question about anything, you will be called from the security area to have it opened and searched. Your passport is also looked over carefully and, in truth, they are quite nice about it, and I appreciate the tight security effort. The agents working the counter selling tickets and assigning seats are also quite thorough, but in a very friendly manner, and I'm impressed with the overall efficiency shown by the airline. 3:45 P.M. I'm at the "tax" window to pay my US$15.00 departure tax before entering the secured flight departure area. Five minutes later, my carry-on luggage is x-rayed and I'm again questioned by a security person. I've been questioned multiple times, but all are courteous. Now it's waiting time again.
Three shoeshine boys are working the secured departure area, but they are all wearing visible airport Identification badges on their breast pockets. They each wear navy blue shirts and pants with black shoes. Two are @ age twelve and one @ age ten. The ID of the youngest one says, "Jose G. Ortiz." I give him the remaining odd coins in my pocket as a "regalo," having no shoes that need shining. That leaves me with my US$5.00 cash and my US$50.00 traveler's check. No problem now. I've also been told the flight is only about half full so I should have some room to sleep. Great news for me.
I watch Jose and the other two boys for a bit and wonder why they are here. They should be in school or out playing futbol or baseball, with no worries at that age. Jose looks much like I did at that same age, but I was out playing ball and not shining shoes. I wonder what kind of life circumstances have placed them in this position? The few odd coins I gave Jose will buy maybe one piece of pastry at a panaderia. I wonder what else he will get to eat today? Is this your life Jose G. Ortiz? Will it ever be different for you? But for the grace of God, any of us could have been Jose or one of the ladies of Plaza Uruguay. Looking out the window of the airport, it is still gray but the rain is gone. It still rains though for Jose.
5:20 P.M. Boarding begins. I have a window seat with no one next to me, so hopefully will get some sleep. There is nothing to see out the window as from here to Sao Paulo, Brazil, to Miami, Florida, it will be dark almost all the way. 6:00 P.M. The plane is pushed back from the gate, taxis out to the runway, and we takeoff. I take my last look at the lights of Asuncion and then, suddenly, it is gone. I think again, Rohayhu, Paraguay. I'm very tired, the tiredness that comes from the weight of sadness that is beyond your control. Soon they serve us and then inform us we will lose an hour as we land in Brazil. Five minutes after my tray is gone, I cannot remember what I was served?
8:40 P.M. Brazilian time, as we land in Sao Paulo. Brazil, like any country, has their rules and we must follow them. Those of us going on to Miami are getting back on the same plane, and we can see our waiting area inches away on the other side of a thick glass panel. You can't get there from here though, and we walk a hundred yards one way, down an escalator, walk a hundred yards another way, up an escalator, walk another fifty yards where a Brazilian immigracion official looks at our papers, then another way a hundred yards to end up on the other side of the glass, inches from where we had started! Crazy. We are going to have to sit here for a while, so I invest US$3.00 in Brazilian ice cream at a snack bar because the Brazilian's supposedly have exceptional ice cream. It is very good and I do not regret my investment. After all, the U.S. of A. is my next stop.
10:05 P.M. Having formerly worked for an airline, I understand the system to a degree; so when I see the pilot and co-pilot going over maps at a table behind the passenger check in counter, I become curious and walk over and ask what's going on? They are kind enough to go over their maps with me and show me where we are now going to fly right back past Asuncion to Santa Cruz, Bolivia, and then turn north to cross the Brazilian Amazon and Columbia because there are bad thunderstorms over Manaus, Brazil, and a tropical storm over the Caribbean is turning into a hurricane and heading for Miami! They tell me they wish to avoid both of these weather systems, a decision I certainly agree with. The co-pilot says it is a beautiful route if we could only see it!
I ask if there will be any problem with getting into Miami or connections going out? They say there should be no problem getting in or out in the morning, but by tomorrow night things could get rough, perhaps closing the airport for several days. That would certainly be a crazy way to end this trip, several nights on the airport floor during a hurricane! 10:20 P.M. We board again and by 10:45 P.M. we are pushed back and on our way to Miami. We are informed that, due to weather, we will probably be a little late, arriving about 6:30 A.M. They again serve us dinner, some pasta, fruit and cake, and then it's off to sleep as best one can in cramped quarters.
5:30 A.M. I remember the flight attendants serving a light breakfast but I declined and settled for some orange juice. I'm really tired and fall in and out of sleep before landing. 6:45 A.M. We land at Miami and I now realize my connection to Atlanta is scheduled for 7:30 A.M. I figure there is no way I'll get through the crowd normally found at immigration that fast, so I hope that I don't find myself stuck here. I've already filled out the necessary declaration paperwork on the plane, but there are still lines to deal with. Somehow though, my bags arrive quickly off the carousel, I get near the front of a line, and immigration lets me through without questioning, even though I declared some items that would normally cause questions and a luggage search! I rush out the door to get my luggage back on the "through passenger" conveyor belt and on to Chicago. A porter says to follow him and I do to the belt, only about twenty feet away. He gets my bags on the belt and I give him my last $2.00 cash.
It is 7:20 A.M. as he tells me the number of my gate to Atlanta and I'm off like an Olympic sprinter. I get to my gate right at 7:30 A.M. as the last people are boarding, and I'm given a seat and rushed on. I figure that my luggage probably won't make this flight, but then we are held at the gate for reasons unknown and don't push back until 8:05 A.M. I'm now confident my luggage is on the plane, will make my later connection to Knoxville and I'm feeling pleased. We were off. Just before landing in Atlanta, I glance at an ad in a magazine for limousine service from "Kennedy to Manhattan $40." I laugh, thinking I can go from Asuncion, Paraguay, to La Paz, Bolivia, for $40!
Walking through the Knoxville airport toward the luggage pickup area, I rummage through my wallet to see about cashing my last traveler's check when I discover a US$20.00 bill I didn't know I still had, stuck back under some photos! Good news! That's more than enough to get me home. Bad news. As I pick up my luggage, I discover one bag is wet and open it to find a broken bottle of Paraguayan "Gotas de Oro" whiskey. I had to clean that up, dry some things, and repack that bag before leaving the area. Then I looked like a pack mule again as I headed down the airport hall to catch the shuttle bus into the city. I was finally home. I'm tired but healthy, and all my belongings were in good shape except for the broken bottle of whiskey I had already discarded. I'm a tired and sweaty mess. I unpack some of my things, select some clean clothes to later wear, and then take a long hot shower. Afterwards I write a little, but it isn't long before sleep takes over. I needed a nap!
9:15 A.M. The aftermath. I slowly drag myself out of bed, than shower and clean up again before having coffee and eating a more complete breakfast. I then nap for another hour in a chair as I'm still tired from the trip. It is much like the feeling one has after completing any major event that you have spent months planning for, the adrenalin flowing daily. Then, the day after it is over, your body is a dishrag lying limply in the sink. The dishes are done and you have nothing further to give. Recuperation time is a needed blessing and a necessity before one has the energy and the clear head to reflect back on the experience. Tomorrow, I will reflect, today I rest. It was the end of a great journey.