[A brief reminder that my book, An Occasional Walker, is available at this link.]
When I was a boy in the 1950s and 60s tabloid papers often ran bold headlines announcing that Hitler is Alive and Living in Paraguay. Maybe not as dramatic, but certainly as creepy and definitely true as well, Dr. Joseph Mengele was alive and living there, in fact, at Nueva Germania, a little village in the San Pedro district about 300 kilometers from Asunción. In those early years of my life he might as well have been living on the moon, it being as remote to me. In fact, it was remote for almost everyone, no doubt even to those living in Asunción at the time. The reputation of a hellish backwater stuck, Nazis being somewhat at home in Paraguay, what with the German dictator Straussner in charge of a Latino fascist state, the military being as brutal as they wanted to be, and bananas being the currency of the land, well watered with peasant blood. We in my little town took it as the nature of things in such a place, shrugging it off as the life of those not blessed with being alive in America. Nazis lived in the jungle of South America, and they belonged there, living like animals, hunted and killed if possible, but if out of sight, out of our minds. Paraguay, though, was definitely the last stop for such creatures, it being the equivalent of today's North Korea, a hermit autocracy of no account at all. And now, here in Asuncion, I am on the edge of visiting the very place of Nazis in the Jungle. I am going to Nuevo Germania soon.
In the early 1970s Rolling Stone magazine ran a headline I will never forget: “Paraguay: the last place on earth for the worst people in the world.” My imagination has run wild since when I thought about Paraguay, which is, admittedly, not often. And now I am there, there being here. It's not what I had expected. It's not hell in the jungle. It reminds me in many ways of Vancouver, Canada, and moreso of Sophia, Bulgaria. Large areas of each country are empty of people, and in those places people are collected they are ordered by the state in petty ways to the point there is little free activity by choice. Not all, but many people sit all day drinking beer, chatting, wasting time and money in stale pursuits of passing the time. Others, being involved in a system the rest can't comprehend, make vast amounts of money dealing with foreign commercial figures, banking, exports, and so on, that allows enough cash to flow downward to keep people at a level of contentment short of suicide and murderous revolution. It's a stagnant place in the sweltering heat, a place of not much going on outside the realm of the internationalist hustler. It's not hell, it's just hot and tired. Living Latina NoKo is wearing. Yes, there are too many police for what there is to do here, but the police don't murder anyone in the streets with the impunity they do elsewhere. It's a grubby kind of police state, like Canada and Bulgaria.
I'm off to be disillusioned soon by the would-be utopia of Nueva Germania, Elizabeth Forster-Nietzsche's lost jungle commune of exiled Nazi war criminals. There is, as the tourist information office downtown informed me, a restaurant there, and the bus does-- yes-- stop at The Intersection. There is a hotel in the next village, about 20 kilometers away. It will be a fine trip, I'm sure.
Much of what I do in life is attempt to make up for the lost years of my youth, that loss coming from a lack of parents who could have saved me with some basic information about living in the world. I had little to no parenting, and my life was then and ever since a matter of finding out what others know and I to this day do not. I don't know what others know about living, and thus I go off to places in the jungle to see what they know so I too can know, and maybe so I can find out some way of belonging, as they do, in a place with others like themselves. I know my place is not in a grubby police-state like Canada or a defeated little rural backwater like Bulgaria. But I know these things because I have lived in those places and seen with my own life that there is more to life and more to know about success than they offer. I know that I don't know, and in knowing that, I seek to know more. In the coming days I might at last discover that one thing that will make all other knowledge sensible. If it worked for Mengele, it might work for me.
Raw Hide. Yee-Hah.
I was sitting at a diner outside on the patio some years ago, a lady on a cell phone at the table in front of me, all of us around minding our private lives in quiet contentment, when a bum showed up and went from table to table demanding we each give him money. My favorite brush-off is to slightly raise my hand and wave a couple of fingers slightly, just enough to catch the corner of his eye and acknowledge his ugly presence, enough to make it clear I don't want to be bothered. No eye contact, no hard words, no real nothing. It works most times. Once it didn't, and that might be due to me also telling a bum to … well, I can't recall what I told him. Whatever it was he became enraged and from his pocket somewhere he took out a metal pipe and swung it at my elbow. As it turned out, it was fortunate for me that this occurred in front of a large pharmacy during a busy period on a major street. It was lucky for me because two blocks away I was pulling a tooth out of the sole of my shoe when the police pulled up and started being hostile toward me. “You were just at the drug store! You knocked a man to the ground and stomped on his face. Do you know where he is now? He's in the hospital with a broken jaw.” I said something like: “He hit me with a lead pipe.” A second police car pulled up and the police had a chat with each other. There had been about a hundred witnesses, and one at least had allowed that the man attacked me. No, I shouldn't have put my foot on his face, I agreed. That was an over-reaction. One cop sniggered, and that blew the whole game for the lot of them. They lost the edge. They all walked away, knowing that they didn't care if I had stomped the guy who hit me, and that the crowd had seen him do it. Sometimes the law, even for the police, is an ass, and they just let it go braying. Not always.
Sometimes, such as the time I worked as a bodyguard for a lady taking large sums of cash to the bank frequently, the police play a greater role in things, like the guy working for my client's neighbor who caught a moron in an attempted robbery. He tossed the thief into a street post, headfirst, splitting the man's scalp in a dramatic and bloody but not serious way. This attracted the attention of two others in my business, and the three of them (me standing aside watching) beat the thief as he crawled down the sidewalk and around the corner. The three bodyguards beat the thief till he was incapable of moving, and then they dragged him back to the proprietor's establishment and called the police, the latter showing up quickly for a change. The police interrogated the thief on the sidewalk where he slumped against the bloody street post, handcuffed to it, dazed and bleeding. The police tore off his shirt to search for tattoos and identifiable scars. Seeing him beaten well enough, and the owner having recovered all that might have been taken, they didn't care to make a further issue of it. The policeman in charge leaned down and spoke loudly enough for all of us to hear that in many such cases they tell the thief he is now free to go, but, darn it anyway, they have to keep him there because they forgot to bring keys for the handcuffs. “You are having a really bad day. We usually make this joke, and then let the guy go free. But in your case, we don't have any keys. You have to stay locked to the street post till a squad car comes by and lends us keys.” We all— except the thief-- had a good laugh, and half an hour later a squad car did come by and let the thief loose.
But it doesn't always have a happy ending for me. The bum at the diner was abusive when I waved him off, and in a sulk he went to the lady at the next table as she spoke to someone on her phone. He demanded she give him money. She waved him away, thinking that would be it, but he began screaming at her. She, waving more and more frantically and shouting into her cell phone to be heard above his racket, was becoming hysterical. I moved into action just about then, charging at the bum who backed off and started running. The unhappy ending is that my knee gave out on me and I couldn't chase him and beat him up. I had to stand still and get over the nausea from the pain in my knee. It is a curse.
Next day I went to a tack-shop and asked the owner if he sold horse whips. He said no, but a friend in a small farm town not so far away sold bull whips. They are as long as 18 feet, he said. I can get a hand-braided 16 strand kangaroo hide whip used by lion-tamers at Las Vegas showrooms. But why, he asked, would I want one? I told him about the bum and my bad knee, how an 18 foot whip would give me just the advantage I need. Today at a tienda for rancheros in Asunción I got my wish at last. It's a farm implement, basically, and I am a farm boy, in spite of much about me. Nothing fancy, like Hitler or Indiana Jones, just your basic rawhide whip that will tear a chunk out of a bum at ten feet. Heaven.
And now, some days after my purchase of a beautiful and functional farm tool meant to dissuade a charging bull from goring his owner and then trampling his jelly to juice, I, having whacked all the leaves off the tree in the courtyard of my hotel, have terrified the resident cat into semi-permanent hiding in the laurel bushes. Oh man, I got this, and now I want to whip ever' f***in' thang!