My Winter Vacation
Mime-Version: 1.0 (NeXT Mail 3.3 v118.2)
From: Peter Langston <psl>
Date: Tue, 1 Feb 100 13:07:04 -0800
Subject: My Winter Vacation
X-Lib-of-Cong-ISSN: 1098-7649 -=[ Fun_People ]=-
[Fun_People's South American correspondent definitely earns his keep with
this one... I haven't tried to correct all the strange accents and
punctuation, except to replace this character "=ED" with an apostrophe
because it shows as the letter i with an acute accent over it for me, but
it appears wherever I expect an apostrophe. Other accents I'm not so sure
of, so... - psl]
From: Robert Hinrix, email@example.com
What follows is my little travelogue, as requested by so many.
It doesn't do any justice to the reality, but maybe it does give a few
clues. Please share it in printed or cyber form with anyone i can't
reach or have unintentionally omitted. I doubt very much i'll have a
chance to write another any time soon, and internet cafes are probably
going to be scarce in the wilds of Patagonia. And it took a pretty big
effort just to get this down, because events have a way of overtaking
their own recording. Right now i have to ignore the people in the
other room, who are listening to Charley Garcia at full volume and
Asuncion, Paraguay is not a quiet place!
The blues are pouring into the street again. Last night it was
Nirvana, very loud at 2am, from the rowdies across the way. Or Juan
Luis Guerra pounding down the insane cobblestones and collapsing
sidewalks. Or the helado man, hiking with his little cooler and a
multiphonic whistle, giving out this rather plaintive wail that still
somehow says popsicle. Even the clopp of the horse drawn milk carts at
4:30 in the morning, or the wind that when i'm lucky stirs the leaves
outside my window. Actually i think the blues are coming from our
apartment, but that seems fitting enough, since we're the local gringos.
From the window Asuncion rolls off to the next horizon, sly and sneaky
about where exactly anything is. Trees provide desperate shade but the
air usually is thick with diesel fumes. The streets are chaos defined.
Arterials arc over hills, changing names and direction. Grids in
various orientations intersect. The river Paraguay makes a huge oxbow
here, and the city fills it and radiates out from there, but none of this
is obvious or even comprehensible from the ground, where you must of
course be in CONSTANT ALERT of getting run over. A bus nearly got me
today, but instead just gave me a good adrenaline rush. It is expected
that you will be RUN OVER if you step into traffic. Downtown, the
sidewalks are at most two or three feet wide, really just enough room for
the news and cigarette stand, or the lady selling fruit cocktail. So i
don't mind it too much if i can hang out in San Vicente in the fine tile
floor apartment, with my new made-in-China fan and Malcolm's computer.
Did i mention it was hot? Uhhhh....it's hot. Really hot. Like
don't go out there hot. Like sweat pouring off you at night hot.
Cold shower feels good hot. Actually since we've been back in Asuncion,
they tell us, it's been a relatively cool 39 Centigrade, somewhere over
100 F, and not the 45 C it was last week. That would be about 112. A
few days ago in fact there was quite a bit of a downpour, with lightning
and streets flooding. And right now the wind is in fact moving the
leaves, saving my crispy soul.
It's hard to get stuff done here. I think it's hard for people who live
here too, but if you don't know your way around, if you don't know the
special store to buy such-and-such, you're in big trouble. By 12:30 in
the afternoon everything starts to shut down here, and if you haven't
gotten done by 1:30 whatever it is you wanted to get done, you'll have to
wait until tomorrow. The work day here seems to be about 4 hours long.
I wouldn't blame all the country's woes on this, but it certainly isn't
Paraguay, you see, is sort of the laughing stock of South America.
(Tho today i was told it's the coraz=DBn ). It's seen as backward,
dishonest, almost comical. Certain historical factors have played into
this. The original Spaniards were assimilated by the native Guaran
population--very improper! Then came the Jesuits, who established a
sort of socialist theocracy, even teaching warfare to the Guaranis to
fight the other, more hostile tribes across the River Paraguai in the
desolate Chaco. In the late 1767 the Jesuits were expelled from all the
New World to stop their growing influence. Shortly after independence
from Spain, Paraguay was ruled by a megalomaniacal dictator for 36 years,
until 1840. De Francia, also known as =ECel supremo=EE sealed all the
borders and declared that Paraguay (then three or four times its present
size) should be completely self-sufficient. Nothing and nobody left or
entered, with few exceptions. While el supremo was essentially a
nutcase, he also took various steps to establish a modern state and
against the powerful church, and in some ways this was Paraguay's
grandest hour. After de Francia's death came more dictators...Carlos
Antonio Lopez ended the period of isolation, and built up the army and
some industry (including South America's oldest continually running rail
line, built i believe in 1856 and STILL running today with steam power to
the town of Aregua. It costs 30 cents and apparently is quite a ride.
I hope to have a crack at it next week). His son, Mariscal Lopez, took
over in the 1860s and is considered a Paraguaian national hero, in spite
of having lost most of the country's territory and led them into total
disaster. Paraguay was stronger than Argentina, or Brazil, or
Uruguay, but i guess he didn't envision the Triple Alliance they would
form. Early in the war he was winning. But after things started to
go bad, he absolutely refused to give up, and the Triple Alliance
overran Paraguay, leaving it one quarter its former size, and
destroying everything in their path. By some estimates up to 90% of the
male population was killed. Mariscal Lopez hung on for quite a while in
the jungles and hills of the north, where he was finally killed in a
legendary, suicidal battle. Paraguay has still not recovered.
Supposedly, Paraguay won the War of the Chaco against Bolivia. The
rumor was that there was oil out there in the thorny desert, and that
Standard Oil pushed Bolivia into trying to make a land grab against the
Paraguayans. They only lost one quarter of the disputed territory,
which turned out to have no oil at all and at that time was still
controlled by various Indian groups that had resisted incursion, aided by
the incredibly inhospitable terrain. After the war Paraguay
encouraged Mennonites to settle in the Chaco (and help subdue the
aforementioned Indian groups), and now more German than Spanish is spoken
there. There was more bloodletting in the 1949 civil war, which with
the aid of our friends in the CIA ended with Alfredo Stroessner coming to
power....you guessed it, another megalomaniacal dictator for 35 years.
It's been eleven years since Stroessner had to take a hike, and since
then things are more open but not really any better. There's been a few
rigged elections, which have kept his party (the Colorados) in power.
Different factions of the Colorados fight each other, sometimes
literally. Last year the vice-president was gunned down in front of the
Government Palace. The president hid in the American Embassy (which is
HUGE, a garrison, right in the middle of the city and NEXT DOOR to the
President's house). The citizens of Asuncion gathered in the main
plaza, trying to prevent another military takeover, but were attacked not
by the army or police but by right-wing hoodlum types. Eight people
were killed. The mystery of who ordered Vice-President Arga=D2a's
assasination seems to dominate today's news, or at least the local
graffitti. I've heard everything from the CIA to the current
president, tho most bets are on the mysterious Generallisimo Lino Oviedo,
who had to leave the country shortly after the assasination. There have
been new and supposedly the most fair ever elections since then. But a few
weeks ago Oviedo announced that he had returned to Paraguay, and
was essentially biding his time, while of course looking for the real
killer of Arga=D2a. He's sort of a right-wing populist, hated by many here
in Asuncion but with a fair amount of support out in the Campo. He makes
cell phone calls to the press, and seems to be hoping the people will
rise up to support his coming to power. This seems rather unlikely to
me. People here seem more interested in kicking back, maybe having some
tea or beer, turn up the stereo and forgetting about it. They know that
every government they've had for the last century had been about nothing
but graft, nepotism, smuggling, bribery=F3plutocracy. Paraguay is the
best modern example of plutocracy that i have ever seen.
According to some, this has become part of the national character.
There are many jokes about it. For example, the ideal Mercosur (South
America's NAFTA) man has the humility of the Argentine, the seriousness
of the Brazilian, and the honesty of the Paraguayan. Smuggling is
the principle industry here, with entire cities given over to its
pursuit. While this does tend to get one's guard up, in practice of
course it has proved untrue, since i have run into plenty of honest and
helpful people. But the contrast between here and Brazil is huge, and
very noticeable immediately.
Ah, Brazil. We might have seen more of it were it not for the trials
and tribulations of the Kombi van, but there still was an awful lot of
it. We headed east out of Asuncion, to Ciudad del Este across the
border and the river from Foz de Iguazu in Brazil. The next morning we
went to the falls, which i have to say are spectacular (another set of
falls, upriver, has been drowned by the Itaipu dam). Niagara is a leaky
faucet in comparison, according to Eleanor Roosevelt, and i agree.
Iguazu is actually a series of falls, an arc in a mighty South American
river that drops over immense cliffs. Paraguay, of course, has
virtually no access to the falls, but from the Brazilian side you can
walk out over a series of walkways and get soaked by spray. They are
gigantic and you have to shout at the person next to you. Terrifying!
From there we went on to Curitiba, the eco-city of Brazil's south.
In Curitiba buses are cheap, there's pedestrian zones downtown and they
recycle. The ambiance is Euro-latin. I found it to be very pleasant
and could go back for more. From Curitiba we made something of a beeline
for the beach, ending up in Cananeia on the beach for Christmas morning.
This was a very pleasant, very old town; a sort of neglected backwater.
To get to the beach you had to take a ferry, sort of a flat barge you
could drive onto. On the way back there was big party going on at the
bar at the ferry dock, people hanging out, drinking beer and playing
music. A very nice image of Brazil. One guy was playing a cavaquinho
that seemed to have a banjo head=F3nice and loud!
After Cananeia we dodged Sao Paulo by getting on the coastal highway,
which was certainly thrilling. There were more than a few first gear
hills. We got to know Ubatuba pretty well by looking for the only
German-made Volkswagen starter motor, which in the end we couldn't find
but they fabricated the part anyway. Ubatuba's a little stuffy, but
we really liked Parati and surrounding areas, just over the Sao Paulo-Rio
border. Here the granite escarpments come right to the seaside, and
islands dot the coast and coves. Beaches are frequent, excellent and
uncrowded, especially considering it's 200 miles in either direction to
two of the world's greatest cities. Green jungle climbs up the granite,
and red tile roofs hide in small coastal towns. Parati is one of
Brazil's oldest settlements, and while it is a tourist attraction it
probably deserves to be. They have wisely shut traffic out of the
cobblestone town core. There's no beach right there in town, but
some of the best we found were 20 minutes away. This is definitely
an area i'd like to go back to.
We drove through Rio at dusk, without stopping. Don't tell any
Brazilians we did this, as it might be considered a crime. But it
boiled down to time and especially money. It looked huge and beautiful,
spread out there along the bay. Next time. We were making tracks, as
best one can in volkswagen, trying to get to Bahia before New Year's.
We got to see quite a few towns on our way there, mostly from inside
mechanics' garages. But i have to say that you see things and meet
people that are definitely not involved in the tourist industry. We
were going to try for Porto Seguro, but fate and the motor had it that we
ended up in Caravelas, about 200 kilometers short. At that point we
were losing about a liter of oil every 20 kilometers.
Caravelas suddenly sounded really good, and in fact it was. I had been
pushing for a smaller town anyway, and Caravelas is probably less than
8000. Caravelas too is one of Brazil's oldest towns, and there are some
architectural features that could get it listed as a UN heritage site,
though i don't think that has happened yet. It's located (like Cananeia)
on a lagoon behind a low sandy island. A river flows into the lagoon
and forms an estuary, rich with mangrove swamps and uncountable crabs and
fish. The town is small, cobblestoned, with houses painted pink and
blue and with fantastically shaped windows, diamonds and crosses and
circles. Many are in very poor condition, even falling over, while some
have been exquisitely restored. Ironically there's really no beach in
town, and economically the town now suffers for that. The beaches are
all serviced by buses and are 6, 10 or 20 k. up the road.
We got there New Years Eve, not having any clue what to expect. When
we asked if there was going to be some kind of a party, it seemed they
looked at us like...you need to ask? Brazilians love to party! In
fact they kinda wore us down into the ground, since the party went on for
three days. By dusk they had parked this enourmous truck across the
main road into town, and people were busy setting up barracas (stands)
along each side of the road. Each one of these would be a bar, making
caiparinhas and batidas (lime and fruit with liquor respectively) to
order. Around eleven the band started, playing on a platform on top of
the tractor-trailer, powered by their own generator, a rolling (tho just
then stationary=F3rolling came the next night) rock concert. Suddenly
there were hundreds and hundreds of people doing some very serious
dancing in the streets. Guys with beer cartons stuck on their heads
and pushing carts full of ice and beer wandered into the crowd, doing
brisk business. Just before midnight the Catholic mass
that had been going on down the street made a processional up to the
tractor-trailer. The baby Jesus was being carried on an enormous
pillow wearing his crown. People held candles. The village priest
(who we later met; i think we met the whole town) ascended to the
microphone and led everyone in the lords prayer, blessed everyone and
urged them to get down to it and have a good time, which they did with
renewed vigor and abandon, joined now by the hundreds from the mass.
I mean serious abandon, or not so serious abandon. While people were
definitely drinking, i never saw anyone falling down drunk (except for
one 12 yr old boy, not only are there no liquor laws but i doubt there's
a drinking age in Brazil). Mostly they just seemed to want to dance
like crazy, which we did with them until dawn, at which point i finally
had to collapse.
I thought that maybe this was special, for the big millenial
celebration. In Seattle that would have gone down in hipster history.
But apparently there's something like it every year...many times a
year. For Carnaval they have three trucks, running day and night
non-stop for four days. In fact the next night, as i mentioned, they
took the show on the road, driving the tractor trailer down the narrow
streets, while the band pumped out high octane Brazilian rap-funk
reggae and people followed behind, with the beer sellers running after them.
There was actually a guy standing on the truck with a big black glove;
his job seemed to be to lift any low-hanging wires over the heads of the
I guess we're gluttons for punishment, tho, because the next night we
decided we had to go hear the forro band playing in the next town up the
road. I figured this would be my only chance to hear a real forro band
during my short time in Brazil. People assured us that it wouldn't
start before eleven, but we got there at ten anyway. That gave us
enough time to sample some street food from the local bahianas. Some
of the older women do still wear traditional dress, including a turban or
headress and a long flowing white dress. This particular woman was
small and thin, shimmering in the white gown like an angel, radiantly
beautiful, selling acaraje, Bahia's most famous traditional food. She
makes each one for us, individually. It is a soft bun, almost a cake,
stuffed with vegetables and seafood, and fried in dende (palm) oil. The
oil gave it a nutty, sweet taste that put it somewhere right near heaven.
I will walk a long way some day to have another one.
Then we waited. And waited, had some drinks, waited some more.
About 1:30 a guy in boots and a cowboy hat got up on stage and played
electric piano and sang. Not too exciting. He finished around
three. We waited some more. At 3:40 the band takes the stage
(apparently they usually start around three, but one of the band members
was missing). Calcetinha Preta, or Little Black Panties, is a full
outfit, with two drummers, bassist, guitarist, accordionist (couldn't
hear him very well...)and two female dancers and two male dancers and two
male singers and two female singers. It was forro, it had the beat and
people were doing the dance. But they call Clint Black country, too.
It was kind of a rock spectacle, with lights and smoke and twirling
dancers choreographed. Their schtick was to have witty repartee between
the male and female singers, the latter of whom would then twirl black
panties over their heads and toss them into the crowd, who would go wild
fighting for them and put them on their heads. You can imagine....
or maybe you can't. Even now, i can barely imagine it!
After nearly a week of Caravelas we were ready to move on to new parts
of Brazil, which is pretty much the moment that the motor gave out in the
infamous blue kombi van. I better than most people should know better
than to trust in those damn things. We also trusted in a mechanic in
Caravelas who at this time, in our minds, is under investigation. But
that's a long story, and you thought this one was long! Suffice it to
say that after several nights staying in a posada charmingly located in a
truck stop, and then spending one night in the mechanic's house we
finally drove away with a brand new motor and flew all the way back
toAsuncion. Well, we drove as fast as a VW van can go, which isn't very,
and i have to admit we did some night driving and got lost in the streets
of Sao Paolo, but it was definitely an excellent learning experience!
Now i really believe that the car is fine, all i have to do is be sure
it doen't get stolen, which i do each night by taking the wire that runs
from the coil to the distributor. It's not like New York where your
car might get stripped...i don't think theft here is that industrious!
Ah, Paraguay... how can i describe it? You could start with the
chispa man than wakes me up, every morning with his plaintive loudspeaker
wail, selling the little baked corn and mainioc flour biscuits. Or the
downstairs neighbors, having their Sunday afternoon fiesta, drinking and
singing songs in sublime harmony the entire afternoon. A garden far
out in the suburbs, with an insane riot of tropical flowers, replete with
hummingbirds and ants, or the suffering horse on the side of the road.
Hammocks hung under whirling fans. Cows blocking the road, which
turns to dirt and potholes, or the guy pedaling past on a very beat up
bike, with his guitar. An unbelieveable sunset over an endless land,
eroded with time and rains copious and frequent.
A spider as big as my hand, a moth as big as my head. Did i
mention the mosquitoes yet? Everywhere, everyone out on their porch
for the evening, drinking beer or terer=C8, ice cold mat=C8 with mint and
other more mysterious herbs. A moonrise over the last bits of the mata
atlantica, the mix of tropical and hardwood forest that once pervaded
here and is now almost gone. The fat moon slowly eaten by the earth's
From here it's a wide open road. It's hard to imagine what might be
coming, because it seems like so far i've been totally off the mark when
i tried to imagine the short term future. I'll spend the next few days
hanging with my new-found friends here in Asuncion, especially Emilio the
crazy 20 year old chain-smoking flamenco guitar player. Then pushing
off to points south, starting with the little town of Pilar, Paraguay,
where i hope to satisfy my urge to visit some soggy basin filled with
cranes and ducks.
From there drifting southwards to the big city of Buenos Aires, where
i presume to meet up with a guitar player from Portland that i met in
Brasil, and proceed into the Patagonian hinterlands. It's almost too
improbable to be believed, tho it is what i planned. Like i said, from
here it's a wide open road.
Wish me luck.
January 30, 2000
© 2000 Peter Langston