[A brief reminder that my book, An Occasional Walker, is available at this link.]
I had finally made it back to the main street with lights and traffic and the looming idea of a cold shower and not too lumpy bed before I fell down hard on the sidewalk, the kerb, and into the pile of litter on the roadside, having misjudged the height of the step I missed by a long way. After all the miles of walking in the dark, I was a block from home when I stumbled and fell down. Of course I can believe it. The miracle is that I hadn't fallen earlier and broken all of my legs.
I often go out into the city and explore for no good reason other than curiousity. Like a duck, I sometimes take the hard way going and the easy way back, swimming upstream, as it were, and floating back, by walking as far as I can in a day and taking a taxi home. Or sometimes I take a bus as far as I think I can walk back from. But sometimes, like today, I just walk as far as I can and then suffer till I arrive where I began, exhausted and sometimes sick. So, this evening, it being dark on an unlit series of side streets in the centre of suburban Asunción I found a metal bench someone had driven a car into and buckled mostly, and I sat down for a rest, rubbing my eyes and in taking off my glasses and laying them on the seat beside me hearing the tinkle of the lens as it popped out of the frame and fell onto the concrete below. No damage done in this age of plastic lenses, I laughed aloud. I picked up the lens, my glasses being necessary due to a time in my youth when I lost much of the use of one eye, the other being a close relative shutting down in sympathy, and put the lens back in the frame, feeling for the screw to tighten the whole thing into working order. That's the part that has me. The screw was gone. I got on my hands and knees and looked under the bench in the dirt for my screw, finding there a white lollipop stick covered with ants, each one being the size, shape, and color of the missing screw. There was one significant difference, though, and that is that the screw didn't move. I tried to look for the one ant that remained suspiciously in one place. For some reason my devious plan failed to reveal the missing link. I had to move on, slowly, uphill, in the darkness, all of which is lucky for me in that I was going so slowly the two kids on motorbikes rounding the corner were able to veer around me as they turned the corner. I thought how lucky I was that hours of walking on rough paving stones had made my knee hurt so badly that when I had to go uphill in the dark without my glasses that I was going slow enough not to be creamed by kids on scooters. Yup, that's what I thought alright. I also thought that someday I will spend three weeks on a luxury cruise ship laying by the pool drinking alcohol till I get sunstroke and have to see the doctor who will tell the naked nurse to beat me silly with her bare hands while I'm tied to the bed and can't resist her. I've heard stories. Travel has to be about more than me being half-blind in Asunción's suburbs in the night. It has to be about more than a lady burning small piles of rubbish on the street, she smiling and saying hello as I passed by commenting on how beautiful is her neighborhood, blackened ash splotches in front of every home, the smell of woodsmoke thick in the air, food cooking on stoves on tile patios in back yards, dogs barking and children squealing, mothers and fathers sitting out and chatting with friends under the front yard trees. It has to be about drunken binges after the shuffle board championship on the top deck where the events organiser hands out trophies to the women with the most expensive boob job. It has to be about seeing things and doing things far better than the goof shit I get into. And then, almost back to the broom closet I call home, I missed the kerb by a long distance and fell down sideways, the banana vendor coming over to sell me a netfull bag of blackened, tiny, rotten fruits for cheap. Why did I decline? It was such a deal! I must have let pain get the better of my good sense.
I've left behind all hopes of home and family and nation for the sake of seeing the world for myself so I can know some little bits about things I might otherwise not understand at all. I could be using this time to go on three day white-water rafting trips with 20 year old European kids with way more money than I have. But no, I go walking around in people's neighborhoods instead, half-blind, lost and tired, and then I fall down and hurt myself. Some people would call this fun. Some would say I have a screw loose. I just keep walking and hope for the best.
The most dangerous man in Ciudad del Este
A mere 24 hours earlier I had been an old man stumbling and falling down hard on the broken cement streets of Asunción, half-blind or worse due to a pair of broken eye-glasses and a youthful injury that leaves me dependent on the wonders of wire rimmed spectacles and the science of optics. I can see the world, but only with my glasses on. Without, I had fallen down on the street in front of hundreds of people, and I hurt myself. Later that night I couldn't bend my leg, having twisted an already arthritic knee, crashing it into the concrete and the garbage thereon. I'm nearing 60, incredible as it is to me, and falls like that, though I have yet to break a hip, leave me in pain for days, also incredible to me. Still, I carry on, pain being part of my life, part of any long journey, part of the experience of travelling. Fall down one day, move on the next.
I left Asunción by bus to cut across Paraguay, hopeful in the morning of finding all good things by afternoon in Ciudad del Este, reputedly the most corrupt and dangerous city in the nation that is by strange coincidence shaped like a dollar sign. Upon arrival I found corruption as soon as I stepped off the bus and made my way out of the terminal to the taxi stand, preferring that to risking myself by crossing the sprawling and well-established homeless encampment across the street where one might hope to find a bus to town. The taxi driver, having decades of experience as a lying, thieving, cheating scum-bag quoted me a lofty price for my fare, which I agreed to, some 20 gazillion iguanas (more than I should have accepted) and we went the few small and short blocks to the town proper that I could have walked to if only my map had been worth anything at all and if I had paid attention to my surroundings. Then, having arrived at a bank machine where I got some cash, the cabbie loudly demanded more than our original price, I politely reminding him of who his mother is and what his fathers would be if he knew them. There were some other things we can pass over. We must not pass over the cabbie calling for a police man standing near by. The cabbie yelled that I owed almost a dollar on the fare I had given him, and me not being much Paraguayan in looks or temperament or anything else the locals would identify with, the man in uniform holding a shotgun, I recalled an episode similar in which a soldier in Jugoslavia smashed my skull with a rifle butt for some trivial disagreement over a small issue. Cracked skull.... One dollar.... I paid. As I have noted previously, life is pain. A dollar, well, it adds up to less pain.
I'd eaten a sausage on a bun the previous day, and in spite of the heat and the lack of exercise I was feeling hungry again. I had a hotel room with cable offering 20 channels of highly instructive Japanese talk-shows, and I took a cold shower, the water splashing all over the waste basket used for toilet paper disposal, and called myself clean enough for Paraguay. Having a ton of iguanas in my pocket and some pain in my stomach I began looking for a place to sit and indulge in something tasty if not nutritious. Some people are funny about food, like the vegetarian in the desert in Jordan on a three day hike with me whose food went bad within hours, who woke in the night at the sound of me opening a can of peaches, who said not a word, and who was nearly hysterical when I offered him the bottom half, the next day, 12 hours later, asking me if I'd help him steal and slaughter a Bedouin goat he spotted in the distance, I having had the idea he would be starving on our trip if I didn't haul a second load of food for us both. Nice guy, really, but fussy when he had the chance. Thus, I wandered for two or three hours around and through the filthy streets of Ciudad del Este, Paraguay looking for something to fill me up for the day. I got a bottle of orange soda to ensure an adequate input of vitamin C, and explored further, wending my way through the remains of the day's street commerce, boxes, plastic wrap, papers, and rotting food on the streets, men drinking beer and lounging in plastic chairs in front of run-down buildings they probably call home, the streets often lined down the middle with three foot high piles of trash, dividing lanes, garbage piled up on kerbsides like ploughed snow in deepest winter in the north. In the darkness I saw an electric light shining over a push-cart in the midst of mounds of garbage, and there stood a man selling cheeseburgers, just the treat I longed for. He offered to change any of six kinds of currencies and was somewhat disappointed when I merely ordered dinner for iguanas, stupidly handing him seven gazillion and expecting my change. I tried to punish him by using two gazillion iguanas worth of ketchup and mayonnaise, though it made me slightly vomitish to eat what I did to those burgers.
Fed, and fed-up, I hopped a bus and rode around till I was totally lost, finding myself at the crossing into Brazil; and being a world-travelling lost guy I went across the street and called it a success. Determined to keep up my winning streak, I found the bridge to Argentina and scored big time, adding yet another nation to my card. If I had a private plane and lots of money I might well be able to stop in every country on earth in a week, finally satisfying my need to see the world, never again feeling the urge to leave home. If this is two o'clock, it must be Belgium. But no plane and not so much money I instead find myself doing other interesting things, like adroitly dodging an unexpected on-coming car while I was running across the high-way in the dark, the driver somehow not noticing my shiny bright black denim pants and blue shirt. I laugh at death, of course. I don't get such a kick out of spending a lot of money for nothing, money being limited and hard to replace. Death is not nearly as bad as being broke. So, having been to three countries in a few hours I had to decide what else I could do with my cash and my time, death being my constant companion, poverty always looking over my shoulder, and me getting nervous when the money flows like rain in the Chaco, flowing like ideas pouring out of my mind and flooding the philistine desert world around me. What to do?
Some things are so obvious I never give them any thought at all, they being too obvious to think about. But I should have thought that through as a child. I didn't; and then I did years later. I'd done some reading about Ciudad del Este before I got there, knew some things about the place, such as the murder rate [**********] and other crime details. I knew that Hizb'allah organise terrorist attacks and involve themselves in other jihadi activities there, and I knew I could find a mosque full of Moslem terrorists who would, if they knew about me, kill me on the spot. My great idea was to find them, announce myself as an ally in the “Clash of Civilizations” and then to let them know that we should work together in making things so bad that war would not only be inevitable but soon. Together we could make things terrible for the whole damned world, thus bringing about the end of Islamic terrorism in one fell smash-up. Ciudad del Este is one place where such a meeting between the jihadis and me is likely. But I hadn't paid attention to the obvious. Good ideas are a dollar a basket, and my good ideas might not be worth even that much to others. Even if they were, I still need more than ideas to make the world work for me in ways I want it too. I need, as I began to understand deeply soon after, more than me and my great thoughts. I was suddenly not face to face with death, laughing as I chuckled, I was staring at my own idiocy. I had come to a city full of people I could actually work with to make a clever idea come to reality; but I had come alone, thinking my mere presence would be enough to change the course of history-- for the better, of course. This is why I laugh at death. He'd be stuck with me. Free rent, no more worries; yes, of course I laugh. It's living that's so hard to deal with.
Every good idea I have looks extremely simple to accomplish when I see it written on the paper of my mind. Once I arrive at the real, things are often written there in invisible ink, where I soon discover the hidden message, it being: 'Damn! I didn't think about that.' There I was, world-travelling guy who had been in three countries in three hours, and I knew, standing on the street corner beside a hip-high pile of empty Japanese-made electronic goods boxes and rotting fruit rinds and tinted cellophane wrappers in one of the most dangerous cities in the world that I didn't have any plan at all. “Death be not proud.” He'll take anyone. But not me just then. I was stuck with the realisation, maybe for the first time in a long life, that I didn't have a clue about the obvious. This is the kind of insight I gain from travelling the world. Otherwise I might be staring down the nurse's blouse as she snugs a blanket around my legs and spoon-feeds me pudding. That might be cool for a day, but I do hope for a little more from life.
Sometimes I think, 'Dag, bang thy head.' But then I recall that there seem to be no shortage of guys willing to do that for me, so I just shuffle away and hope no one has noticed and that I don't have a group of teen-aged girls sniggering as I walk past, some kid with pimples flicking a cigarette butt at me when my back is turned, a parent clutching a young child, saying, “For God's sake, don't ever become like that man there.” This is what experts in the field would call not a very good day. But I changed that.
I considered my dwindling mound of iguanas and pondered my success at penetrating Jihad Central in Ciuday del Este by taking a taxi to a mosque, entering therein, and telling the Ummah my fabulous plan for destroying the known world. What an idea! What I call Reason prevailed. I had stood staring into space for quiet some time when I noticed I was next to a group of young men on motorbikes, all of them revving their engines and laughing and calling out to girls passing by. I said to one that I have a bike, a Kawasaki 650. Magic words. All the bikes around me ranged from the low 100ccs to mid-200s. My bike could leave them all in the dust immediately. They could only dream of a life beyond tiny bikes and nights otherwise spent sitting on plastic chairs outside the house, drinking quarts of beer with layers of dead flies floating in the foam. 'Varoom! I say.'
I read and hear that Ciudad del Este is a dangerous place, and I went there looking for trouble, failing to find even a hint of it because I seem to lack the intelligence to plan properly for it. But, all those bikes and not a lot going on. I said I would like to try one out, and made some jokes and became an old guy the kids sort of liked. I offered to rent one of the bikes, asking if another would come along beside me as I rode around a bit. I haggled till I was satisfied I couldn't do better, and with a young fellow I took off into the mean streets of Ciudad del Este; me rounding corners on my no-name 150cc bike; almost dragging my knee on the pavement as I hung low over the side, counter-steering like a pro, and giving it the juice like a maniac on the straight-aways; going air-born when I met a hidden speed-bump, landing with such force that next day I could barely walk from the pain in my hips; no helmet, no gloves, no licence, and me whizzing between cars and through intersections without a thought; me-- the most dangerous man in Ciudad del Este.
Can't even get killed. One of these times that might not be so funny.
CSI As A One Man Show
Ciudad del Este was one time the setting for an episode of the popular television show, Crime Scene Investigations, (CSI) [********] and now that I have my own experience in the city to compare to theirs, the cast and crew of the show, I see too clearly that I have failed on a cosmic scale by being alone in the city where they were many; by being basically poor while they are wealthy; by being an outsider where they are the centre of all attraction and attention. I can't complain that I'm not a rich and famous t.v. person making the world happy in my professional capacity as an entertainer. I didn't try that and for now obvious reason other than a conspiracy among jealous colleagues fail. This failure was all mine, and totally predictable and preventable. Even by my own low standards I could have done something rather than nothing, and I could have failed with some panache had I really tried at all to win. Even an independent traveller, i.e. a backpacking old guy with not too much money, could have done a better job than I had I only tried a bit of sense and a thousand dollars into my stay. And if I had had a determined and and rational plan to meet jihadis there my visit, even if it had been of short duration, would have been at least an honest attempt at furthering my desire to wage war against the world order as we know it, an order that brings so much unnecessary ill-treatment to the innocent. But I didn't spend my money on that. Fear of future hunger and homelessness prevented me from trying to do one thing I dearly want to win at: bringing about a war between the thugs of Islam and their leftard allies and folks like me, maybe not so pure ourselves-- speaking for myself, of course. My one-man dog and pony show lacked the animals, leaving me kind of nekked on an empty stage with no audience to boo me. I shuffled off the stage of my own vanities and rode a motorcycle, my own Kawasaki 650 making the local bikes look like clown toys at the circus, and still me having a better time than any in Paraguay to this point and beyond. Fun aside, in failure is sometimes learning to do better next time.
My idiot breeze through Ciudad del Este showed my clearly something I had missed to date: That the actors don't star alone, shining of their own brilliance; they are the faces of the corporation behind them, the many men and women who toil to make the few look stellar. There is no one-man show of the natural genius. Millions of dollars daily pour into the corporation to make magic real. It's the people in the background, the accountants and the carpenters and insurance men and typing filers and janitors who in combination make the stars shine. My one-man show on the road was a flop. Now I get it.
[More to come as I complete the typing.]
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