El Silencio del Corderos - The Silence of the Lambs
Images of the South American Poor
During a past summer, I traveled to Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil and Paraguay, visiting communities, schools, churches, historic sites, getting to know the people and absorbing the history and culture of the area. Traveling independently, I utilized my slowly improving Spanish to communicate with the peoples of the area, keeping a daily journal of my experiences and thoughts. The majority of my time was spent in Parana, Argentina, and Asuncion, Paraguay, and this story is a reflection of observations made primarily in those two communities. Much seems impossible to describe and my words woefully inadequate, but below are my impressions of the life of the poor, the silent ones, the sacrificial "lambs" of South American society.
I alternate between nervous and excited until boarding the plane in Miami and knowing it's too late to turn back. Next stop, Buenos Aires, Argentina! With as many times as I've read my guide book and other sources, I know I'm as ready as I'm going to get. My limited Spanish will be getting a real challenge. I get out my Spanish phrase book and settle in my seat, hoping that my most common phrase won't be "No entiende." After sleeping for several hours, 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 and the sky has turned to bright blue. It is beautiful, the process taking almost an hour. Then a bright orange sun suddenly pops up over the horizon, so bright now I lower the window shade. The pilot announces it is less than thirty minutes to landing and immigration information is being shown on the movie screen. I am surprisingly calm! Outside it is dark green, gray, misty, flat and ghostly. My seatmate, an Argentina native, says it will be cold, so I put on my sweater. I am ready for Argentina. Immigration is routine, but as I step outside it is surprisingly very cold.
BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA
I board a bus for the city center, have a good seat for views and am now excited. Buenos Aires, or B.A. as the natives call it, is a huge city of almost twelve million people! High rise housing is everywhere and most all buildings are multi-level. I plan to spend two days here acclimating before going on to the much smaller city of Parana, Entre Rios. Though exhausted from the flight and lack of sleep, my adrenalin is now flowing. My body will feel better tomorrow, but today I must push myself. I find an inexpensive hotel and I'm off to see B.A.
My day is spent seeing lots of traffic and some 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. Like much of the world, B.A. is a walking city and do I ever walk, about thirty miles in the two days! 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 taxi might have squashed her by now. I have very positive impressions of the city and it's people.
One "discomfort" of note, the nights are cold in my hotel room as I discover there is little central heating in this part of the world. Floors are generally concrete or tile, very cold in the morning air. I am to discover this is the pattern throughout my travels, no heat in any place I stay. The South American "central" heating system consists of wool blankets, one, two or even three as necessary. There is generally no central air conditioning either, but one does see an occasional window unit. As it is winter though, it is too cold to think about air conditioning. Electric space heaters appear to be the "fire" of choice in South America. Some hotels have them available for rental at the front desk for an extra charge. Retail stores with no permanent doors, but only a roll up metal security front, have a space heater or two in their store that employees gather around to keep warm. Observing the employees, they are clearly cold!
When I go on from B.A, it is the bus I depend on. The bus is the transportation of choice in Argentina and throughout the South America continent. Bus terminals are crowded and the buses normally run full or near full. Individual seats, however, are large and comfortable. I request a window seat, "asiento ventana," whenever I travel and sit back to enjoy the view. Parana is in the province of "Entre Rios," the land between the rivers known for "all the greens," and where I first learn of the poor of Argentina. But as I also discover, material wealth is judged differently here, if it is judged at all.
The Schools - The first school I visit is Escuela Superior #1 del Centenario, an elementary school, located in a large historic building. The public schools, 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. Similar to the way much of the United States has become.
Walking along Blvd. Mitre at the top of the bluff overlooking the river, the housing is quite attractive and colorful. As I continue toward the northwest side of town, however, the income level of the residents appears to drop off considerably. Here I stop at an escuela secondaria, a high school, 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 riverside. One can see the shanties built on the lowland near the river from where many of these students come. The entire school appears in bad need of at least several coats of paint, and one suspects many other necessities are needed even more.
I stop and meet with Senora Gambelin de Gomez, the Directora of Parana Normal School, a teacher training college. We enjoy a cup of mate (South American tea) as I discuss with her what I'm doing in Parana. PNS is recognized as one of the best schools in the country, but still suffers from severe financial problems. The school is over 100 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.
I'm sitting in another classroom at PNS. There are twenty-one students, all around nineteen years old, and all are female but one! They are in their second year of teacher training, all appearing very attentive and well-behaved. The students are all wearing sweaters and many are wearing coats, as the room is quite cold. There is an old blackboard at the front, which the teacher uses regularly. 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.
I comment to the instructor 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." Almost all teachers in Argentina are women, as teaching is not considered a very good job for men. Several students have huddled together now, sharing desks, to keep warm. The teacher is also dressed quite warmly in sweater over sweater, wool scarf, and coat. The conditions seem so difficult for both teaching and learning. I am amazed the students stay attentive under such uncomfortable decisions. The instructor later 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!
The next day, I have te (mate) with Silvina, a student at PNS, who tells me the government steals all the money and does not put it into education. The government does not consider education an investment in the future. 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 again wonder how similar that is to the way the U.S. has become?
The Neighborhoods - I walk down and through the "Parana Antiguo" toward the original port of the city and the site of it's founding. 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, across the river from Parana. 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 the wheels of ox or horse carts 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 with bright 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 slumlords?
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 a bench. One young boy comes by my bench riding a small rusty 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.
There seem to be dogs everywhere! 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. 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! 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.
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 many 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 all over 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 these things.
I think about the two men I saw living under a bridge nearby. 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.
CIUDAD DEL ESTE, PARAGUAY
Entering Ciudad del Este, 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. I'm told that most everything for sale is "black market," though I am not sure what that really means here. All stolen goods? Perhaps?
As I wander the streets of Ciudad del Este, it is pouring rain, hard pouring rain! 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.
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 place to a westerner, especially an American.
Ciudad del Este to Asuncion: The Paraguayan Countryside
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. Every time we stop, vendors hustle up to the windows of the bus in an attempt to sell various food and drink items. Many vendors, mostly young boys, come right on the bus trying to sell their wares.
Observing 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.
I see a family of four washing clothes in a river, beating them on a rock! I notice Brahman bulls and oxen, 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. Livestock is individually tethered in yards or small field areas. I observe many two-wheeled carts being pulled along side 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 rarer and quite valuable in Paraguay. 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 "muy poquito," very small, shacks by any basic American standards.
A lovely "bello chica," about age sixteen, 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 "bello chica" carries them in a large wicker basket, as do most vendors. I've noticed women do much of the heavy work in South America in general, and they start very young. I wonder if this is her fate, her life already determined.
Shantytowns - There is a small plaza next to the Palacio de Gobierno 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, 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 capitol is especially shocking. Very strange. Very sad. You wonder if anyone cares?
The City 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.
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 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, 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.
I'm sitting on a bench in a small plaza right next to the large 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. Two men sleep on the ground around me, and one man sleeps on a bench, or at least tries to sleep, with his two small children around him. A little girl @ five and a boy @ three are pulling at his clothes and climbing on him. The father wears no shoes. 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 small futbol, and the three children kick it around together on a small patch of grass. The new 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.
Actual age of many is very difficult to tell. Some look so young but look so old. Very confusing. It is also 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 canvas sneakers. The children all seem to look happy, the adults all bored, tired, or both.
The sun is hot sitting here, so I decide to walk for awhile. 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!
Parque Caballero, overlooking the Rio Paraguay, 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 "doorspace" 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 ignores shantytown, choosing not to look below. I wonder what the General thinks of the view? Does he look below? 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.
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 and, again, how much of that is similar to the U.S. or Europe?
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.
The Children - 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.
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 this 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 quiet 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 speak any English and a boy 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. Fuck seems to be the main American word South American children know. The power of American television! I tell them they should be "bueno ninos," before I wave "adios" and continue on my way.
Sunday in the Park - 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! More vendors continue to set up throughout the morning, and more family groups arrive to picnic. There are "boom boxes" hooked up to auto batteries for power! There are several mate vendors. 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!
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?
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 trashcans 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.
The Guarani Indians - 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 generations of constant exposure to the sun. They make a meager 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.
One notes that the Paraguayan street merchants are generally found in the shade. They 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, is not lost on their bodies. The women always sit 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.
As I walk some more, another 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, 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?
The Mercado Quatro - I am on a Linea #8 bus heading to the "Mercado Quatro." Ten minutes later I am 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. The mercado is an interesting place and reminds one of a more organized Ciudad del Este.
The "Mercado Quatro" 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 shall ever take it away. There are small boys and girls who, should I return to Paraguay, I will 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?
A Peace Corp volunteer in Paraguay once told me they change nothing noticeable in the culture, just "small steps" here and there, mostly in the area of sanitation. The Peace Corp has 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 Corp 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. They say it's not so bad once you get used to the idea! That same seems true of "Mercado Quatro."
The Prostitutes - Walking toward my selected restaurant dinner choice, I swing by the train station to view it's architecture, and then Plaza Uruguay, across from the train station. As 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. Waste is everywhere here.
I'm sitting on a bench across from three very inexpensive prostitutes. They are on the same bench where 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, wearing 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 buttons 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. 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, I notice a much larger number of "working girls" out tonight, about twenty compared to only about ten I noticed 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.
I tell the story of my Plaza Uruguay prostitute experience to the owner of the hotel where I'm staying, 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 the Paraguayans are very friendly.
We talk more 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.
The Physically Challenged - I was struck by thoughts of a woman I saw when I was walking back to the hotel 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 Corp 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.
The City - It is mid-morning, and 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 seem to have the right of way in Paraguay.
The heat is already noticeable by mid-morning as I search for diamonds 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 casas del rico.
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, where you pay your fare before going through the turnstile to a seat. 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, then 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.
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. 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 most of the United States. I've noticed out 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 the people seem to do in the city. There is more order in the land of the rico.
The Lido Bar - One 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 wish I'd come here earlier, but it was always so crowded. No wonder. It is a very good breakfast and the "Lido Bar" is packed. All the diners sit on bar stools. 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.
Later 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! The Paraguayan 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.
I decided to again 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's the time. 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 the same waitress as last night, the beautiful one with the missing front teeth. I think she wants to go out with me!
She asked my plans for the day and I tell her. She asked 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 unsure of what it is she really wants from me. I wasn't certain of all the words in our conversation, but I think she would like me to father a child for her! The Peace Corp volunteers had 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 I guess she must think I'm intelligent!
She seems to be a poor, hard-working, waitress, but I know nothing of her personally. I sit and 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. Should I take a chance? A Peace Corp volunteer told me 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 very flattered but I've chosen not to participate.
The International Expo - The name included "international," but it is really much like a state fair in the U.S. I've done nothing of real importance while wandering the grounds but have a little cambio fun with the Maka Guarani, who are selling their usual craft items 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.
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 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'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.
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 is the final chapter and I don't want the book to end. I stand there thinking: Rohayhu Paraguay, Rohayhu Argentina, I love you. When I walk out the front gate, in a crowd of happy people, my eyes are watering as I go to catch the bus back to the hotel,
Leaving Asuncion - Everything I've seen and done is 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. It is amazing what one can see if they travel with their eyes and ears wide open. There is something to learn, something to feel, something to hear everywhere you look.
Just as when I left Parana, Argentina, the sun hides and the sky weeps. Several Maka Guarani are wandering the airport attempting to sell their usual craft products. Looking out the window of the airport, it is still gray but the rain is gone. It still rains though for so many in Paraguay.
At the airport, young shoeshine boys are working, but I'm in tennis shoes so they do not bother with me. Three boys are working the secured departure area where I wait for my flight. They all wear visible airport identification badges on their breast pockets, navy blue shirts and pants, and black shoes, none of them matching however. 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. 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 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.
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 the flight attendants serve us and inform us we will lose an hour when we land. Five minutes after my tray is gone, I cannot remember what I was served? One never knows what their future will bring, but I hope that more of South America is in mine.
The poor, in terms of monetary and material wealth, are not unique to Argentina, Paraguay, or any country in the world. Wealth is also not unique to any country or society. Most political scientists, whatever their ideological label, agree poverty and class can never be completely eliminated. In every society there will always be those that are relatively rich and those that are relatively poor. It is argued that in most cases those that become rich have obtained their wealth by climbing over the backs of the sacrificial lambs of society, those that makeup the powerless poor. Perhaps this is evil, perhaps it is not. Perhaps it is just the nature of mankind. Those are issues for greater minds to ponder. The difference noted in South America is not that there are both materially rich and materially poor people, but in the way the poor are looked at by society and, most important, by themselves.
In America, there is a shame to being poor. Society looks down on the poor as primarily being responsible for their own fate. They are either too lazy to work, have too many children, abuse drugs or alcohol, are uneducated, perhaps just plain stupid, or a myriad of other reasons. The implication always that it is their own fault that they are poor. True, we have our sympathetic organizations and individuals, but they are a small percentage of society. In general, we avoid those less fortunate, we avoid their eyes, we avoid their neighborhoods, and we certainly avoid conversation. We treat them as diseased, occasionally offering sympathy, but almost never respect.
In return, America's poor can be rebellious to society. They will speak out, show aggression, steal, and commit violent acts. They will demand their "rights" as human beings, as individuals under the American system of government. America's sacrificial lambs are not silent. They would not meekly accept such conditions as exist in South America. This lack of respect for the less fortunate as individuals, and the response of these same individuals to society, are key differences in the culture of our nation's. We are divided by more than the equator.
In all of the vignettes above, one notices the poverty in terms of living conditions and material wealth, but one sees few, if any, examples of disrespect. This is true no matter what your position in life. No disrespect is shown to the prostitutes, the Guarani, the disabled, the street vendors, the merchants of the Mercado Quatro, or anyone else. The "upturned nose" may exist, but it is certainly not common. Even the white smocks worn by school children are a sign that all are equal in the eyes of the teachers and society, though the child may go home to a shanty at day's end.
The government describes the shantytowns as "temporary residences," but they have existed for half a century and will remain. They are a permanent part of the culture, "temporary" only in that they are built on the low land of the river flood plain, and when the river floods every few decades they float away. The river recedes and they are rebuilt overnight. These are the people's homes. They look at them as their homes. They "decorate" them as their homes. They know and visit their neighbors. Their children attend neighborhood schools. Each shanty has a pride of ownership. Only their appearance, built with scrap materials, and the lack of "facilities" makes them different than any other neighborhood. There is a culture of self-pride here.
I saw one shanty in the middle of a shantytown that was a "double" structure, twice as large as the others around. It was open across the entire front, contained two pocket pool tables, an old refrigerator and an overhead fan, both running off "borrowed" electricity from wires run to a utility pool about thirty yards away! It served as sort of a community bar and/or recreation center. This kind of entrepreneurship is common among the poor of South America. These culturally based attitudes of entrepreneurship, willingness to work, doing whatever is necessary to survive, are the key ingredients in both the pride of the poor in themselves as individuals, and the respect they receive from all in the community. The rich and the poor routinely interact daily in South America, and communication overcomes fears and promotes respect. This interaction is evident in the vignettes above.
Lambs remain silent when they feel no need to bleat. In return for the respect shown, the pride that comes with respect, and the willingness to work, the less fortunate seem to harbor little ill will toward society. This in turn fosters a society of relative peace and harmony, criminal acts and violence in general a rarity. One would not normally walk through a slum neighborhood in America out of fear. One can walk routinely through a shantytown in Paraguay without fear. As the Korean owner of the hotel where I stayed pointed out to me in several conversations, "The Paraguayan's are a peaceful people." This same is true in Uruguay and Argentina. I never witnessed one act or heard one word in any country I visited that would cause me to disagree. The few "nasty" words I saw on walls or heard from the school children came from American movies!
It is interesting to note that one does not find social welfare or other government support programs in South America. In Argentina, Paraguay, or any other country, the individual has to make their own way in the world. One might argue this is cruel, I certainly might have before making this trip. This is perhaps a particularly valid argument when one learns of the plight of the Guarani, or the suffering of the disabled, the physically challenged, as the woman with backward feet. One can also argue, however, that it is the lack of government support programs that promotes the attitude of entrepreneurship, the willingness to work to survive, and promotes the pride and respect that comes with work, no matter how small the income. The willingness to work is evident everywhere, be it as a street vendor, a stall at the Mercado Quatro, a trash gatherer, a waitperson, or a prostitute. People doing nothing exist, but the numbers are small. Those that work eat, seems to be the prevalent philosophy. In the United States that same philosophy has become a political one, in South America it is an integral part of the culture.
Traveling in South America, my first impression and thought was why doesn't the government do something for these poor people? But the more I saw, the more I spoke with the people, the more I observed walking the streets and neighborhoods, the more I thought maybe they are doing something for the people. Can a government do more than allow the individual to stand with pride and be treated with respect? As American's, who live a relatively "rich" life by world standards, we have established a variety of government welfare and other programs to supposedly "redistribute" wealth. Yet it hasn't worked as imagined. Studies show the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer, and our society has become more divided and more violent. Too often, we want to apply our cultural standards, without an understanding of theirs.
As the Peace Corp volunteers pointed out to me, they have no desire to change the culture of the country, just make "small steps" in hygiene and water quality issues for the better health of the people. It is teaching, not changing or imposing of standards. This makes sense to me. These are health matters, helping children and adults to have better lives, and not deep-seated cultural issues. The countries of South America do maintain a class culture, that can't be denied, but then what country doesn't? It is also true that the citizens complain about their government being a "bunch of crooks." However, that same complaint is heard across classes and in virtually every country in the world, including America. In South America, however, the culture dictates a respect across classes that doesn't exist everywhere, and a pride among individuals that we can all learn from. Despite the material poverty, the countries and the peoples are rich in spirit. A spirit I will never forget.