Sitting on a Bench (in Bolivia)

If I had to pick a favorite part of South America, it might be the plaza.

It’s something we just don’t really have in the states. Yeah, we have our parks and public spaces, but the plaza – at the center or heart of any town or city – just doesn’t seem to be something we value all that much. It’s not to say they’re not there, but they’re certainly not used, not enjoyed, like here.

Santa Cruz, Bolivia doesn’t really stand out as a model of much. A tranquillo town – the biggest in the country – that to me most closely resembles its nearest international neighbor, Asuncion. The Plaza 24 de Septiembre though, does stand out. One reason being that the entire city is designed to make it stand out. It’s truly is at the heart – the rest of the city radiating outward in concentric circles like some sort of antipodean water-less sprawling Amsterdam.

Ok, so it’s nothing like Amsterdam, but the circle pattern thing draws comparison.

I was reading recently that successful public spaces – like many of the world’s more famous plazas – are sized at around 450 feet, which is coincidental because that’s about the same distance from which we can distinguish another approaching person and determine their sex, dress, gait, etc. In the plaza in Santa Cruz last Sunday, it would have been hard to draw a straight line 20 feet without hitting a family or a couple, an old man drinking coffee, a vendor selling it, or a band of children chasing after something. The most multicultural city in the country has a lot of excellent people watching going on any given Sunday, not at any sort of event or at any particular hour or for any particular reason, but available all afternoon from any of a hundred benches.

The thought of Bolivia for a lot of people conjures up an idea of a certain type of dress: the pleated skirt, the leggings, the shawl, the extraordinarily undersized bowler hat pinned to braided hair. Searching that 450 foot urban horizon, a few women in that dress might catch the eye, but nearly all are transplants from the Altiplano region, a journey away. So on this day, in this place, this image, this idea of Bolivia needs reassessment.

Travel comes with a lot of preconceived notions. By the time you find yourself on the ground, a place never seems to fully fit your notions or expectations the way you thought it would. It turns out it’s the places that do, that sort of in a way are the most disappointing. These places tend to become the biggest let down because they almost got it right – but not as good as your imagination did. It’s the places that hit you out of nowhere – the market in Sucre and it’s fresh made juices up for sale along size dozens of varieties of potatoes unknown to any supermarket; the vineyard you stumbled upon while lost and asking for direction; the perfect sandwich shop hidden in an alleyway; the hike that starts in someone’s backyard; they city you hadn’t even planned on visiting – that always wind up the most pleasantly surprising, and daresay most enjoyable.

And that’s what makes us want to go back out. It’s not the brochures and guidebooks and the adventures promised by our imaginations – it’s the stuff hiding in plain sight: the everyday. Only it’s a day different then we’re used to, and far different from what we expected.

Checking your expectations at the door is a lesson South America has been trying to teaching me for the past three and half years. I forgot for a moment or two earlier this month and was swiftly reminded that that’s something you can’t just forget about – and if you do your time won’t be nearly as enjoyable. Maybe that’s why the plaza is the best place to remember this kind of lesson – it comes with no expectations, except maybe to have a seat, hopefully in the shade, and let the world pass you by for a moment while you get to have  a window on everyone else’s every day and make it part of your own.



More on Beans and Government

A great piece was recently published, in the New York Times, by the director of Oxfam International, highlighting the role of that damned little bean we keep discussing, in the recent ousting of Paraguay’s president, Fernando Lugo.

Soy is neither a new or small topic in Paraguay. I often tell people that any work you’re doing in this country can be related to agriculture. By that standard I suppose it also wouldn’t be too far to say that nothing here is ever that far separated from the soybean. I can’t understate this relationship enough, which is why I’ve written here about it so many times. (You can find my previous ramblings on soy here, here, here, and here).

The Times article succinctly covers many of the ideas I’ve tried to touch and even comes pretty close to capturing some of the ridiculousness of the situation. I hope you’ll all read the article, but some of it bears repeating:

  • Paraguay is the world’s 4th largest exporter of soy in a time when there seems no limit to how much of the legume the world insists upon consuming
  • In the past 16 years, just short of 3 million acres have been deforested here in order to plant soy instead of something edible
  • Close to 9,000 rural families a year are evicted by soy production in Paraguay
  • 1.2 million acres of land are turned into soy monocultures in Paraguay each year
  • And one billion people – one-seventh of the world’s population – goes to bed hungry every night

I’m not a vegetarian, but one comes pretty close to a convincing argument when you look at how the world’s hungry aren’t being feed because soy is being planted instead of food. The argument has some virtue but needs a little duct tape to keep it afloat. There is currently a market for soy. There isn’t one for feeding the world’s poor. There’s no money in it. Rest assured, if there was, than people would be feeding them. While this is all very true, it’s still worth pointing out that if we didn’t all have such a hunger for grain-feed beef and fish (two species that don’t even naturally eat grain) than we wouldn’t need all this soy. Remove the market, the soy goes away. The idea is the conflict will too.

It would be nice if simple economic theory could be applied to such a complex problem and yield such a pleasant outcome. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem anywhere close to happening. People want land reform – that’s why they vote for people who promise it to them. Governments want development – which at this point is measured by GDP. The two are at odds and the common ground it would seem is shrinking for the landless and disenfranchised, while growing wider for governments and agribusiness. Wide enough to plant a sea of something no one even needs in order to line pockets and hold on to power. You can’t help but wonder when a government’s overthrow is not meet with anything more than a whimper by the very people it’s designed to protect, until you realize just how disconnected they feel from that government. Separated by so many things, including a desert of soy.


Here by the sea and sand

Opening my eyes and seeing the underside of the slanted corrugated roof on its forty-five degree slope, only a couple of inches from my face, it took me a few minutes to remember where exactly I was waking up. I’m in the loft – or more accurately, attic – of a small shack masquerading as a hostel, a couple of hundred yards from the beach in Cabo Polonio, Uruguay.

The attic floor is covered with mattresses and the nine of us in our group are packed in there like it’s some sort of nest for sleeping travelers. A ladder leads to downstairs, a small kitchen, the proprietor’s bed and a corner fireplace. We headed out here the day before without any reservations or idea of where to stay and stumbled across Daniel, who rented us a house to stay in. Only latter in the day did we find out it was his house and he’d be staying in it too. You’d have to see this place to really understand.

Our place in Cabo Polonio

Cabo Polonio is a smattering of shacks and other structural stand-ins for houses on a sandy peninsula jutting into the Atlantic along the endless beaches of Eastern Uruguay. The cape recently became a protected area under the designation of the Uruguayan National Park System, due to the historical status of its lighthouse and the rocky point below it, which along with two small islands offshore, are home to one of the largest fur seal colonies in South America. Since then any new building has been halted. Before then, the less then one hundred residents who’d been squatting here for decades were locked in a land rights argument with the state. The park status designation seems to be the final card the state has to play in its battle of attrition – effectively promising the size of the settlement will shrink in years to come. Although the amount of tourists being trucked over the dunes each day seems to make that unlikely.

Once Daniel started grilling freshly caught corvina for us shortly before midnight we started to feel a little more comfortable with the idea of him staying in the house we thought we’d rented. While we wolfed down three fish in a row, sitting beside the fire behind the house, crying because of all the smoke in our eyes, but unwilling to move the table as to delay the time before another piece of fish covered in garlic and olive oil would be tasted, he explained how things work since the park took over. No more new building. No more improvements. But as is the norm in these parts, rules have exceptions. All improvements, like the new roof panels he put up last year, are done in secret, at night, during the new moon. Working in the dark isn’t much of a problem out here since only the lighthouse and a few stores and guesthouses with generators have any power to begin with. Everyone is using candles and flashlights. Which makes for some amazing stars. Anyone who comes to visit who hasn’t been living in rural Paraguay for the last two years is thoroughly impressed. I was more impressed by something that lit up a little closer to the ground.

Taking a break from the fire and peaking around the side of the house, Daniel comes back and tells us the plankton are out tonight. He seems a little more excited about this then one should be about plankton. He tells us that’s because these ones are bio-luminescent. And sure enough the waves do look a little brighter then they should given only the sliver of a moon that’s hanging over the giant dunes separating Cabo Polonio from the rest of civilization. When we walk down to the beach it becomes even more apparent that something’s going on in the water. Tapping your feet in the wet sand leaves behind for a fading few seconds a glowing footprint. Splashing around knee-deep in the water leaves streams of blue-green swirls roiling around legs. Squatting down to watch the incoming ripples of already broken waves roll forward at eye level reveals countless dots of firefly-like twinkles in the water. Laughter becomes as contagious as splashing the person next to you.

The next day is our last on the Cabo. We arrived on a whim after spending the past week fifty kilometers up the coast in Punta del Diablo, grilling freshly caught fish, playing in the waves and soaking up the last bit of time together with friends before we all head off in separate directions, on separate adventures. We managed to hit Diabloin the week before

Punta del Diablo, Uruguay

the town of a few hundred residents swells to over twenty thousand for the tourist season. As the week went on you could almost feel the tension building in this little fishing community without paved roads turned ramshackle resort. Each day a few more cars driving by, a little longer of a line at the store, a few more umbrellas on the beach. The lifeguards showed up on our last day. A good sign it was time to move on.

And now we move on again. This time from Uruguay. From impromptu fish grilling and home-made Bailey’s; from terere circles on windy beaches amongst confused mate drinkers and sunburnt shoulders; from meals thrown together for a dozen people tastier then anything you could ever find in a restaurant; from the restaurants that did have something to offer, like some of the best beef on the planet or a little old lady rolling out pumpkin-filled raviolis in leek sauce; from a tranquilo place I selfishly hope few more people will find out about.


Just gotta get used to it, part iv

(One from a while back that never made it up).

To call Asuncion hot during the summertime just seems lazy when english has such a long list of better words to use. Sweltering. Broiling. Melting. It’s that kind of air you get a breath of on the hottest day of the year back home, somewhere in the middle of the grocery store parking lot, half way between your car and the automatic sliding glass doors and the cool haven of AC behind them. Or at lunch time when you make your way out to your car, parked, baking in the sun all morning, get in and try to take a breath as you turn the key with one hand and simultaneously with the other push all four window buttons down in some sort of advanced finger-yoga move. It’s that air that’s so hot it just doesn’t seem to work for breathing. No oxygen here. Try again in a sec.

That’s the air we walked out of the hotel into the day we went to find ice.

This was back in our early days in Paraguay before we realized that ice is available just about anywhere – and that there was (and still is) no reason at all to walk anywhere, let alone the three blocks we were about to, to find it.

We start walking. And sweating.

We come to a rather fancy gas station – it seems a bit out of place.

‘They’ve got glass doors!’, one of us comments. ‘Chuchi.’*

We enter. It’s air conditioned. They have hot dogs on one of those rolling machines. They’re selling Budweiser and MGD. We may as well be in Miami – albeit one very tiny street corner in Miami.

‘Where’s the ice?’, I ask the clerk.

We come to find out it’s outside to the left. We head out and find the freezer right there on the side of the store like you’d find back home. Neither of us says anything but both of us are thinking something along the lines of, “this is to easy – too much like the way it’s supposed to be.” We’ve come to expect a certain level awkwardness – of random obstacles – in trying to accomplish the mundane tasks of everyday life. The height of the freezer doors is the only thing coming close to unusual here. Again, it goes unsaid, but the level of normalcy here is almost unsettling.

I climb onto a pallet, using it like a little ladder to peer inside. A dozen or so half melted bags of ice sit on the cooler floor in a puddle of their melted compadres. I reach down to the floor, teetering on my thighs as my feet leave the pallet, and snag 4 half-melted bags. I hand off two and we make our way back to the cashier.

At the glass doors we’re confronted by the pump boy, who apparently thinks he’s some sort of authority figure.

‘There is no ice’, he tells us.

I exchange confused glances with my friend. ‘Yes there is’, she tells him, holding up the evidence.

‘No. There is no ice’, he repeats and steps forward as if to confiscate what remaining ice we’ve found.

‘Yes, it’s okay, we’ll just take these’, one of us tells him.

‘There is no ice.’ (Mind you, this is all in Spanish and he is perfectly capable of elaborating). Maybe he thinks we’re gonna eat it and that it’s not safe, one of us suggests to the other, increasingly confused. We explain it’s not for drinking, just to cool beer and we have no problem paying for it.

‘No. No ice! It’s prohibited.’ He then takes the ice from us. We stand there dumbfounded and begin to laugh.

Heading back to the hotel, still sweating and still ice-less, we ask a neighboring street vendor where we can find some ice. She points across the street to an office building. We again exchange confused glances but then head across the street. It almost seems abandoned. The glass doors have nothing on the gas station’s.

‘Hola’, we say opening the door, still confused. Some one emerges from a door about 50 feet in front of us, on the other side of the lobby.

‘Adelante’, their voice carries through the air, welcoming us in the same friendly tone as if we were on her porch and not on the other side of some long ago deserted office building lobby.

‘It’s gotta be a 120 degrees in here’, one of us says as we head towards the woman in the doorway. A teenage boy sits on a sofa behind her sipping terere. It’s some sort of apartment on the ground floor of an office building? Confused glances again.

‘Can we buy ice here?’ we ask in spanish.

‘Of course’, she says and disappears into the back for a good five or so minutes. The boy on the couch stares at us as we wait. The lady returns, we pay for the ice and she casually takes our money as if this sort of thing happens all the time – although I’m pretty certain it’s fairly obvious to all of us involved that it doesn’t. We turn and go as a white fluffy dog runs across the lobby after us.

This city becomes stranger each time I visit. But always entertaining.

* Chuchi is a Paraguayan slang term for something fancier then the norm. It can be applied to nearly everything: Using parmesan cheese in the campo – chuchi; Sunglasses of any type – chuchi; Having glass doors and air conditioning – extremely chuchi. Highfalutin’ is the nearest translation we’ve come up with.


Good good water

Some new photos are up off to your left. Just click on one of them and you’ll be redirected to see the rest.

Most of the them are of “the falls”. Iguazu that is. I know, I know, you’ve seen ’em before. But these ones are a little bit different. A friend showed me how to make a lens filter from a piece of welding glass so I could take long exposure shots in full daylight conditions without overexposing the photo. The results are pretty awesome. Keeping the shutter open for longer when taking a photo of something moving – like water, or the stars or a busy street – creates the blurring effect you’ll see in the falling water.

No photoshop here – just a 3 dollar piece of glass, some hot glue and some patience.



Like goin home when you don’t know where you’ve been

I’m not sure why, but the more I run into turbulence these days, the more actually give thought to my plane falling from the sky and smashing into the ground. I find myself looking out the window on the approach to land and wondering if we’re low enough yet to make it should we start spinning like a top and falling like a rock. I almost always convince myself we are and try to enjoy those passing feelings of weightlessness I can only find on board or a roller-coaster – the nearest of which I’m sure is another plane ride away from here.

“Nahani. Ndaipori taxi o collectivo ocorrehina. Oky tuicha – tuichaite.” At least he wasn’t making it up – it was raining big. Real big. I’d carried on my bags, so I’d made it through the mild formalities of entering Paraguay by air rather quick and was one of the first to pass by the broken – or just plain turned-off – baggage scanner and through the sliding glass doors – whose glass had long ago been replaced with some sort of aluminum sheet metal – and into the terminal’s arrivals area. After dodging my usual greeting party: rental car agency clerks who’ve figured out they can turn a way bigger profit offering to exchange your foreign currency for guarani’s – at a less then honest rate – I made my way to the ATM and took the four dollar hit of it’s withdrawal fee rather then deal with the guy over a Hertz. The legit money exchange both was closed of course – as I’m sure are most through out the world’s airports at 2 pm on Friday…

The next set of sliding glass doors really were made of glass. The sound I walked into on the other side of them – outside – was loud, to say the least. Seems what we’d flown through, about an hour ago at this point, was now sitting on top of the airport and there’s nothing subtle or quiet about that much water falling from the sky. But I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t at least a little welcoming. Fresh, cool air; wind; and of course entertainment. The taxi stand we’d been standing in front of was crowded around by a good eight to ten guys, all dressed in black pants, shoes and some form of white button down shirt – with the number of buttons in use apparently optional, as is the norm in this land. Each time a newly arrived passenger walked though the doors with the look of, “oh, shit, it’s raining”, on their face, one or three of these guys would yell, “Taxi?”, and a passenger or two would mope over and try to negotiate a price. And then they’d receive the same line we had about nothing running anywhere because of the big rain and the rest of the crew would all bust out laughing. This went on for a good forty-five minutes as we waited for the rain to let up, each time all of them laughing at their latest delivery of the joke as if it was the first time. It was hard not to laugh along with them.

The three hours we spent trapped at the Asuncion airport that afternoon was merely the close of the day’s traveling debacle getting back from Mendoza. And while it would seem easy to label it as the greatest of the day’s inconveniences, it was actually the most enjoyable. I’m not sure why, but as soon as I stepped out and saw and felt that rain, I had this strange feeling. Strange, because of it’s unexpectedness. It was the feeling of being glad to be back. I feel like I’ve seen a good deal of the inside of some airports in the past ten years or so and with just about all of them that I’ve visited more then once, each on has it’s own feeling when you walk through those sliders out into the   fresh or not so fresh air. I don’t have to be standing in baggage claim to tell you what it’s gonna feel like when I walk out the doors of Tampa or Orlando or BWI or Denver or any number of others. But this is one I never would have pegged for Asuncion.

The time spent in Argentina had been filled with all the things I can’t find or get here in Paraguay that we all find ourselves gripping about regularly: terrain, driving, real beer, wine not in box, Asian food, cool air, a language I can understand, cheese, a lack of giant insects… all that good stuff. After the trip was over and we rode through the flooded streets of Asuncion to the to the all too familiar Palace Hotel, I was left wondering though, what I actually did for all that time. It was the longest vacation I can remember taking and yet by far the least event packed. It seems I’ve become hooked on what it was I was so glad to get back to – the tranquilo-ness of it all.

But surely it wasn’t all just staring out the window – the photos of our wanderings (if you haven’t seen them already) are off to the left. Enjoy.