Thursday, July 12, 2012

In which I arrive in Asuncion

Asunción is hot and humid and dirty and on Sunday, everything, including places where one might buy food, is closed. This is the place where I started -- involuntarily -- my Latin American diet. It’s too hard to find food and too hot to eat it even when it can be found. (One Peace Corps volunteer here lost 70 pounds in her two years. She hated the food.) It’s so muggy that everyone, from schoolgirls to blue-suited businessmen, carries thermoses full of iced maté -- a South American tea -- with them. Even the bus drivers have their Igloos set next to the gear shifts. Every time they stop, they sip maté through silver straws.

I found a pensión near downtown. It was owned and run by some wayward Mennonites whose four tow-headed children spent the day shouting in German, kicking soccer balls against the walls, and watching television. My room was on the second of the five floors, all connected by a Byzantine system of rooftops and stairs emerging from strange places. To get to my room, I had to go through the Mennonite’s living room, climb the stairs past one of the bathrooms, cross the rooftop where they sat in the evening, then go up another flight of stairs that ascended precariously from the patio with no railings at the sides. The first time I climbed the stairs, I realized if I tried to keep my backpack on, I would fall if I leaned just a little out of balance.

I wanted to sleep late but couldn’t. The sun was up by 5:30 and children were playing in the courtyard beneath my window by six. I thought I would have hours to kill before I could do any of my errands downtown, but realized quickly that everyone is up at that hour of the day. Stores are open by seven, although the majority of business seems to take place in the streets and on the buses. In just one bus ride (signs on the bus implore “Please no smoking or spitting”), I saw vendors hawking candy, cough drops, lottery tickets, apples, bananas, razor blades, soda, juice, newspapers, gym bags, bread, toothbrushes, ice cream, and cookies.

Paraguayan Spanish is clear and easy to understand (as opposed to, say -- Chilean Spanish, widely regarded as being the worst in the world). The Paraguayans don’t even bother with those verb stem changes that other countries regard as an essential part of Spanish grammar. “Prueba 7-Up” became “Proba 7-Up.” My only problem was that most Paraguayans also speak Guaraní and would slip into it without warning, leaving me stranded.

I couldn’t find much to like about Asunción except that it has a big Korean neighborhood, which I found it by accident walking around. Koreans had settled in Paraguay after the U.S. had changed the immigration laws. It was easier to get into the U.S. as a Paraguayan than as a Korean for a while. But then the law was changed again and the Koreans were stuck in Paraguay. The little grocery on the corner sold wonderful homemade vegetarian sushi.

I was bored bored bored my first day in town. I spent Sunday wandering through the tourist market and reading my book. I did find a great bargain at the market: a fabulous leather daypack -- lined! - for only $30. A saleslady from whom I did not buy anything told me jealously, “That’s horse leather. It’ll go black within three months. Horse leather does that. Just you wait.” (I spent the month of November watching the pack anxiously, but her threats were idle. It stayed its beautiful tan.)

The streets were deserted: Latins spend Sunday afternoons with their families and no stores are open. I finally found a little grocery store where I bought some yogurt, crackers and a big bottle of water. I took them to the rooftop of the pensión, where there was a breeze, and watched the sun set over the smog of the city. I was in bed by eight. No wonder I was able to get up by six every morning when I was in Paraguay.