by Mario Machado—
Asunción is a city like no other. Its setting, nestled in a sharp bend of the Rio Paraguay, provides both access and isolation for its residents. The city is not far removed from the seemingly infinite Paraguayan countryside (called in Spanish the campo). Daily, thousands upon thousands of merchants make the pilgrimage to the sprawling marketplaces, such as Mercado Cuatro (Market No. 4) and Mercado Abasto. Here, shops are thrown up in shantytown manner—leftover and pilfered materials are hastily fastened to other shacks, buildings, electrical lines, or anything else that might seem to offer support (irrespective of however false an assumption this may be).
The merchants peddle their wares, ranging from secondhand electronics to herbs to clothes and even animals (advertised as mascotas or pets, but in reality just wild birds, snakes, and lizards that have been caught and thrown irreverently into cages). There is nothing that one can’t find in Asunción’s markets, except for maybe a non-pushy salesman. These places are infamous for vendors that aggressively pursue all potential customers, often with words that get stronger and more profane the farther a shopper wanders, and occasionally resorting to physical means to capture shoppers’ attention. Best advice: Walk tall and confidently, avoid eye contact, and don’t even feign interest unless you really, really mean it.
Other than the few islands of modern, Americanized shopping malls and the ever-expanding business district, the rest of the city seems to occupy a time mash. Caught somewhere among the ornate Spanish Colonial architecture of the older buildings, the crumbling infrastructure dating to the Stroessner dictatorship of the mid-20th century, and the resourcefulness that has crept to life in its stead, Asunción certainly feels different. The entire socioeconomic spectrum can be viewed within one city block. Mercedes-Benzes drive side-by-side on the main roads with horse-drawn carts and other haphazardly re-assembled vehicles that look like the Frankenstein monsters of the automotive world.
One thing is for sure: In Asunción, if you can make it work, then “it lives!” There are few regulations in place and even fewer that are enforced. Many intersections are left without street signs or even lights. Far from anarchy, however, the order of this city is maintained by the culture, by the people who follow basic principles regardless. Paraguay is perpetually a tranquilo country where freedom itself has assumed a unique non-Western form. While police carrying assault rifles and shotguns patrol most every corner (most are on private salaries as a deterrent for violent crimes and bank robberies), this is not what keeps the peace. Asunción is a comparatively safe city and, despite a reputation for police corruption, order is maintained in a very tangible way.
From Paraguay, still,
by Mario Machado—
The days are passing, but just. I woke up again last night drenched in my own sweat. One hundred and ten degrees during the day makes the 90 degrees at night feel like an air conditioner. Still, my body doesn’t quite agree with this heat. The local Paraguayans say that it’s the sun in this part of the world that really gets to you. In reality, it’s not just the sun, but the stifling lack of wind, the latent heat trapped in the thick tropical forests, the fact the running water shuts off at random, and that, with houses so small, most of one’s life must be spent outside anyway.
Nobody works in the fields during the hottest parts of the day; to do so would be virtual suicide. Siestas get longer during the summer (Paraguay is in the southern hemisphere, so the seasons are switched). Tereré, the national beverage and cold version of Argentina’s yerba mate, is consumed around the clock. People are smart—they stay hydrated, stay out of the sun, and wake up at 4 a.m. to finish tending their crops before the sun hits its peak.
In this country, tomatoes are often scorched by the sun. As a boy coming from eastern Pennsylvania, the notion of tomatoes getting too hot seems almost silly to me, however, in Paraguay anything and everything can burn. Winter squashes, watermelons, and melones (halfway between honeydew and cantaloupe) all have the benefit of beautifully broad leaves to shield them from the intensity of the midday heat. Tomatoes, sweet peppers, cabbages, and other vegetables require artificial shade structures (in Spanish called a media sombra or half shade) to survive the critical months of December and January.
Crops suffer from the heat almost as much as people do. When rain is needed, when the heat becomes intolerable, when the will of the land and the fields and the farmers seems to ache for salvation, the Guaraní phrase okyse (which translates directly as “it wants to rain”) is often muttered, half as an observation and half as a sort of invocation. And while hot days can string together repetitiously, the rain eventually comes, usually sweeping across the gently undulating hills in an instant. No sooner can those dark clouds be spotted on the horizon than golf ball-sized droplets are cascading from a terribly flustered-looking sky.
As the storm passes, as the heat is broken, the infamous viento sur (southern wind) comes charging up from the Argentine border. The following days are cooler, calmer. The plants can once again fill their veins and straighten their spines. The farmers return to their fields. The weight of anticipation has been lifted, and the land can release its humid sigh of relief. The nights, now bearable, feel a little more like home. But this isn’t home to me—not yet, at least. To me this is still Paraguay and I am still trying to set my rhythm to the pulse of this strange, new place.