Thursday, August 16, 2012

In which I eat Korean food in Paraguay and talk politics

At 3:00 p.m., the street vendors were already packing up their wares. I hadn’t had any lunch except the leftover vegetarian sushi rolls I’d bought at the Korean grocery in Asunción. With the overwhelming heat, I didn’t have much appetite. But by three, I started to feel empty, so I set out in search of food. No open restaurants! I was too late for lunch and too early for supper. I found a Korean grocery. Good sign, I thought.

Wrong. I approached the plump Korean lady behind the counter. “What do you have to eat?” I asked.

“Only Korean food.”

“Great!” I replied. “I love Korean food.”

“Is very spicy,” she warned.

“Even better!” I exclaimed. “Give me whatever -- noodles and vegetables, kim chee, whatever.”

She stared at me. “Is very very spicy.”

“That’s fine. I’m hungry. It sounds great.”

Her reply surprised me: “We don’t have any.”

“You just said you had food -- spicy food,” I protested.

“We’re out,” she said with a note of finality and turned away.

I was still starving. I walked back through the sidewalks, which were almost deserted except for the fried pork stand on the corner. The smell of the grease in the hot afternoon was almost nauseating. I stuck my thumb in the waistband of my skirt and decided it wouldn’t be such a horrible thing to lose my appetite altogether.

But I did need to eat something. I finally found an open café that claimed to serve pizza. I walked in and approached the counter. The only other customers were a young couple giggling and sipping soda in the corner. A fan rotated slowly on the ceiling, providing just enough breeze to cool the flies that buzzed around the tables.

“Do you have anything besides pizza?” I asked hopefully.

“No,” the waiter replied. “And we don’t serve that until later.”

“But I’m hungry!” I said. “And there are no open restaurants anywhere!” A note of desperation crept into my voice. “Is there any way at all that I could have a salad or something?”

He looked at me with a bit of pity. By US standards, I am not at all underfed. “Buxom” and “healthy” are adjectives that describe me amply (especially if you ignore the “big breasts” implied in buxom), but in Latin America, I am considered thin. (Which is a very strong reason for me to consider staying there the rest of my life. Chubby thighs are appreciated in some places, thank you very much.)

Anyhow. He said, “Well, we don’t have that many vegetables...”

“What about tomatoes? And onions? Don’t you use those in the pizza?”

He brightened. “Yes!”

“Well, what about a tomato and onion salad? With some peppers and lemon juice?”

“OK,” he said.

“Great!” My voice dropped. “Oh. Could I ask you to peel the tomatoes? I’m not supposed to eat unpeeled produce.” I always found this a delicate issue -- I didn’t want to insult people by implying that their food was unfit, but I didn’t want cholera, typhoid, or hepatitis either. My health concerns usually won over my always-present concerns for the feelings of others.

“Sure,” he said amiably.

I grabbed a bottle of water from the refrigerator case and sat at a table. A few minutes later, he emerged from the kitchen. “Would you like some rice, too?” he asked.

“Yes,” I told him. He smiled and ran back into the kitchen.

A minute later he came out again. “How about some beans to go with that?”


Again, he disappeared and reappeared. “Do you like carrots? I have some that are cooked.”

“That sounds great,” I said happily.

He returned with two plates, one with the tomato salad, the other with a huge serving of black beans and rice with carrot slices arranged artistically around the edges. He beamed as I exclaimed over the esthetic appeal of the food and hovered over me as I ate. It was actually too much food and I couldn’t finish it. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, so asked if he could pack it for me to take and eat later. It made a great breakfast.

The dueño at the hostel gives me his political views
I took my book out to the patio. Shortly after I’d started to read, the dueño came out and started talking to me.

I asked him something that had been bothering me. “In Chile,” I said, “you cannot leave a store or restaurant without taking your receipt. Even if you tell the clerk to throw the receipt away, he’ll make you take it. If national tax auditors come into a store and find that the store isn’t giving receipts or finds them in the trash, they’ll close the place down. Here in Paraguay, it’s totally different. You can’t get a receipt even if you ask for one. How does the government collect taxes?” (Paraguay allegedly has a value-added tax.)

He pondered the question. “We’re supposed to pay taxes. But you can see that people don’t. That’s why we have bad schools and bad roads and that’s why many places don’t have electricity.” He shook his head. “But people won’t pay their taxes.”

“So you do see the connection between paying taxes and getting public services!” I said.

“Oh yes,” he answered. “But you know -- really, it’s the government’s fault. They don’t make us pay the taxes.”