Today I had the unique privilege of hearing four languages in less than four hours. It was English, then Spanish, then Portuguese, and finally, I heard for the first time a few words of Guaraní, an indigenous language spoken in Paraguay. It was a little much to take in all at once.
We flew north out of Buenos Aires for the short trip to Asunción, the capital of Paraguay. As I got off the plane, the humidity and heat settled calmly over my body. The evening heat was the fading effect of an extremely hot day (the daytime temperature hit 100°F for the first time in a few months—and this is still springtime in Paraguay). The group of Peace Corps volunteers-in-training loaded onto buses to take us across the city to a small conference center to spend the night. The sun was setting and the smog was smoldering over the poorly labeled streets with a combined effect similar to having a foggy lens being pulled over my eyes.
Drivers seemed oblivious to road signs—they drove against the traffic on one-way streets, across medians, and fearlessly into traffic merge points, hoping that the opposing drivers wouldn’t call their bluff. Compact little coupes and rusty old sedans jousted for position with oversized and unbelievably overcrowded Mercedes buses, while motorcyclists and mopeds weaved in and out at will. A policeman was parked on one corner with his lights flashing but made no efforts to intervene; his presence, if actually intended as a deterrent, was in reality little more than a gesture of authority. This was motorized anarchy.
As streetlights cycled through their colorful displays, it soon became obvious that these too were arbitrary in meaning. Not only was I in a country where I did not know the language, I now realized I did not even know how to interpret the road signs. As the bus sat waiting at a green light, several people started to shuffle past the bus: a few in military uniforms, kids trying to throw themselves on windshields and clean them for a few pesos, a few joggers. And then, an old woman walked past. Propped up on her hip and dangling over her shoulder was a small boy. He was emaciated—atrophied legs, swollen joints, a head that lolled aimlessly from side to side in concert with the bump-bump-bump of her hips—resembling someone suffering form some sort of muscular dystrophy. She carried him, seemingly with no particular destination, walking slowly along the median between two maddening sides of opposing traffic. She was unfazed, he was expressionless, and that’s just what it was. The light turned red and we drove on. Both were quickly swallowed by the smog.
We drove through streets of a city unlike any I have seen before. Asunción’s colonial architecture is underscored with an overwhelming feeling of passing time, as if each building is unusually prone to gravity and is slowly being pulled underneath the earth. There is nothing new here. No new cars, no new houses, no new sidewalks. Even the trees seem burdened with time. Shrubs hold precariously to a very dusty, iron-rich and blood-red soil that seems liable to blow away if one but breathes too heavily. Garbage itself constitutes its own unique feature in the cityscape. There are no large buildings, no skyscrapers. The few vestiges of American consumerism remain isolated and contained in small islands, each erupting upward with four or five billboards stacked together like sardines. The soccer fields display their true colors as the grass has been kicked away leaving behind only a large patch of red earth flanked by white-stained-red goal posts.
Asunción is a city with a flavor, and not in the figurative sense (although it does also have plenty of cultural flavor as well), but in a very literal sense. Farmers just outside the city spent the day burning off brush from their fields, presumably to make room for new crops and to recycle nutrients to the soil. The entire city smelled of burnt rubber. The flavor of Asunción today was ash. Tomorrow it may well be flowers and lavender, but today the air tasted like a city of coals.
We arrived in our compound, were warned not to stray outside the gates, and spent the evening eating and relaxing from several days of travel. Showers were a welcomed treat. Tomorrow we move in with host families. Seeing as I might not get a good 8 hours in a while, I shut my eyes and rolled over, sleeping soundly with the knowledge that the guards at the gate, armed with a shotgun apiece, should take care of any troubles we might have.
In way over my head,