Thursday, 26 April 2007


Large flocks of tiny yellow butterflies have occupied sections of the road in between here and Mbaracayu. They huddle together, in what looks from afar like a yellow spot on the road, about the size of a shoe. When I get near them they fly up suddenly in a colorful little whirlwind, diving for my face and eyes like uncannily accurate little yellow kamikaze pilots. (Reading over this I realize there are a couple ways the phrase ‘little yellow kamikaze pilots’ could be interpreted).

Welcome to the Jungle

I saw a giant, hairy spider crossing the road one day as I was slowing down to try and navigate a muddy patch. It was the kind that is so big that one is reluctant to step on it, because it’s not certain whether that would kill it or just make it mad. Naturally I ran it over on principle, but that doesn’t make me feel any better: what if there are more? On the same ride I caught a glimpse of snake slithering away into the underbrush. With such a huge beautiful sky over head, and the long picturesque jungle views, it’s easy to forget just how many truly gross little creatures live out here.


Curuguaty is where the asphalt gives way to dust. About 20 kilometers more and the large fields give way to unkempt individual plots surrounding single-family wooden huts. Ten more kilometers and all one can see are low rolling hills covered in verdant tropical forests. Another ten kilometers and, on top of one of these hills, one finds Villa Ygatimi.
(Just ‘Villa’ for short. I know calling it that sounds like a pretension of a foreigner trying to sound like a local, but in the local language ‘Y’ is an irritating guttural sound).
The main road would be about wide enough to allow two cars to pass each other in the opposite direction, but since there has never been much of a call for that, and since it is impossible to paint lane divisions on sand, the two lane system devolved long ago into a one, rather wide, lane, which is also a sidewalk, depending on traffic, system. The sides of the road are occupied by corner shops, butchers, a gas station, a few tiny motor bike workshops and two stores that call themselves ‘Supermercados,’ which should never be confused with actual supermarkets. Since Villa is on a hill, there are huge, graceful topical vistas to be seen just around the buildings of main street.
One or two blocks out from the main road are houses with mowed lawns and maybe the occasional satellite dish, the high school, another gas station, and a beauty salon.
After that there is nothing. One day I picked a random road that was perpendicular to the main street and started walking. After three blocks I found myself surrounded by waist high grass, banana plants and trees, the road having half heartedly petered out.

Thursday, 22 March 2007

Marzo Paraguayo

For five days in March of 1999 the citizens of Asuncion occupied the Plaza outside the Capitol building here to defend against the plotters of a military coup. They occupied the plaza in the face of sniper fire, mounted police, and the threat of tanks.
The protesters fought pitched battles with police and supporters of the coup plotters. They used ball bearings to cause the mounted police to slip and fall, they used fireworks, pretty in the sky, dangerous at close range, they blocked the street with a burning truck, then pushed it with a tractor down Av. 14th de Mayo to stop the advance of the Olviedistas.
It sounds like a mix of Prague Spring and the forest moon of Endor, but this is real, and they won.
To an American the question “would you risk your life to defend Democracy?” is like the question “would you risk your life to defend t-shirts?” While the first is more common (being used by some of our more unscrupulous politicians to defend some of our more unscrupulous wars) they both fall on American ears they same way. Democracy is such a part of our life that the idea that we would actually have to defend it is unthinkable. We go to work, we hang out with our friends, and we exercise our First Amendment freedoms in the same way. Democracy is so deeply ingrained in us we don’t even notice it.

Friday, 16 March 2007

Where Paraguay's government goes to work

Paraguay’s Capitol is startlingly ugly, but unimposing, much like Paraguay’s congress. A foreigner walking through the streets of down town Asuncion might notice it for its outlandish architecture, but would probably think nothing more of it; there are no soldiers guarding it, the few desultory plantings are poorly maintained, and its location is out of the way.
(This is a stark contrast to the Presidential Palace, which looks like the home of a Bond villain. The romantic, tropical architecture combined with the fact the place is surrounded by surly, poorly uniformed guys with guns makes it very easy to imagine Scaramanga holding court inside. The truth, unfortunately, is not that far off).
The building faces the river; so, as walking along the river is completely out of the question (get to that in a minute), the dominant image of the Capitol is the side. Of course, to say ‘dominant’ would imply that this side image is somehow imposing or interesting, which would be a lie. There is a double glass door that faces a small park that is alternately over run with children in dirty clothes or protesters.
In one corner of the park is a statue of Mariscal Lopez looking over the river dumped on top of a uninspiring rectangular block. Two large cannons that were used in the War of the Triple Alliance are also part of this monument, but they face the opposite way from Mariscal, aimed directly at the Capitol.
Between the park and the river the land slopes away so dramatically that it is only from the edge of the park closest to the river that one can see the intervening land. And it’s quite a shock. Nestled between the symbol of Paraguay’s legislative branch and its historic main artery of commerce is a barrio of complete abject poverty. Temporary buildings of corrugated iron huddle together and lean on each other; free-range chickens peck in the dirt. As my friend and I walked along the side of the Legislative Palace that faced the river, we encountered what was supposed to be the front. The effect of the large steps and gold lettering was somewhat marred by the fact that two piglets were rutting in the dust at the foot of the entrance. It was here we got jacked. There was no one around, not one senator nor policeman.
I bought a new watch the other day. It’s a fake Tommy Hilfiger, and when I hold it upside down the face looks like the Paraguayan flag.

Thursday, 22 February 2007

Description of the robber

I would like to put the internet on alert for a Paraguayan male, slightly shorter than 5'11, brown eyes, black hair, dark skin.
If you see him, be aware he is a seasoned street robber, do not approach. Or, if you do appraoch, kindly ask him for my watch back.

I am not cut out for city life

Street vendors in Asuncion aren’t usually very pushy, so yesterday when my friend and I were having a walk around the Capitol building here and a man ran up to me and said “cellular, cellular,” I was a bit put off.
However, not being a seasoned Asunceno, I assumed he was a particularly irritating vendor and waved him away, murmuring ‘no thanks,’ then turned my eyes steadfastly away from this man, to let him know I really wasn’t going to buy anything.
He turned his attention to my companion, and, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Auchi, who was much quicker on the up take than I, hand over her purse.
He then came back to me. I, being almost mind bogglingly slow to understand things, still thought he was a street vender to whom Auchi had now, for some inscrutable reason, given her purse. “No thanks,” I said, but this time as I waved my hand he grabbed my wrist with one hand, and ripped the watch off it with the other. By the time I realized I had been robbed the bastard had already sprinted away.
I want to point out that I was well within shouting distance of the front of the Palacio Legislativo. If a Senator or someone had been leaving work just then I could have called “excuse me,” in a very polite voice and he would have heard. One would think that this incident would underline the larger story I had wanted to tell today about the tragic hilarity of the part of Asuncion that contains the Capitol, and in all honesty it will, with some intervening days between happening and writing. But for now let me leave you with this: some motherfucker stole my watch less than 50 paces from the front of the seat of this nation’s legislative branch. Welcome to Paraguay.

Wednesday, 21 February 2007

Villa Morra

Walking down Cruz del Chaco in Villa Morra (my barrio of Asuncion) is like waking down a corridor in an open-air prison. The residents of the neighborhood have seen fit to separate their property from the street by all manner of protection devices. The result for a pedestrian is to be hemmed in from all sides by walls or bars.
What do these people possess that merits such absurd protection? Or what possesses these people to believe they merit such absurd protection? One excuse is money laundering. A lot of the more prominent residents of Villa Morra have businesses that deal almost exclusively with cash, and therefore must find a place to put it all. But why do they make their homes into obscene castles? (No hyperbole here, one home has a turret at the wall, including slits in the side that could have no other purpose than to facilitate boiling oil pouring). Surely there are other ways to indulge in completely tasteless wealth (fifty on the pinky ring just to make my fists glow, for example).
The answer, I believe, is the same reason gangsta rap doesn’t have the same foothold here as it does back home. The elites are terrified. To a suburban Fifty Cent fan "Many Men" feels the same as a suburban nerd feels about Lord of the Rings; gangsta-ism is a fantasy for the most of us. But to in the back of these Paraguayan’s minds they genuinely believe that these hideous chateaus are completely necessary to keep out the unwashed hordes.

Monday, 19 February 2007


Not to run down the Iowa Agricultural College or anything, but a school website that has "tips on giving speech" on the faculty page wouldnt fill a prospective student with confidence.

Monday, 12 February 2007

Look, a blog!

If there's one thing the internet needs, it's an adolescent sharing his experiences, thoughts, theories, feelings and other things which really ought to be kept private.
'But where shall we find such an adolescent?' I hear you ask. Look no further.

To my mind this serves two purposes: staying in touch with everyone I know (y'all happen to be on the other side of the world), and keeping some sort of record for myself.

That's it for now, I will write something about Paraguay when I get back from the jungle on Wednesday.