[A brief reminder that my book, An Occasional Walker, is available at this link.]
I dread that line in chirpy travel books, “But the best part of the county is the people.” I know right then that the county is a dump where there is little or nothing of interest do see or do, that it will be difficult to find necessary supplies for my travels, and that I will very likely be accosted by local police for a shake-down, returning at night fro a miserable day to a dirty and smelly hotel room with noisy prostitutes working in the next room. If it is the people who are the best thing about the place, my visit should be short. People are usually the best part of every place, and to note that they are is to say only that the rest of the place and all about it is hell. Of course people are good. Unless they aren't. Good people aren't a bonus. They are essential and common. It should go without saying.
I had my first solid food in over a week last day, chicken dinner with chips and salad and soda. The cafe owner, a lady about my age, hobbled around with a swollen foot, me pitching in to serve myself, she being flustered that I would do such things, all of us eventually sitting in and chatting about her accident and how her daughter has been doing extra work to make life a bit easier, how it will take up to four months to heal and allow her back to work properly but life goes on and things are pretty grand. Nice dinner, too. I had my fill. I might well go back and do it again.
As good as all my dinner was, who would go to a fly-blown dump in a city like Asunción for chicken and chips? Those people I know who travel do so for a few weeks each year, going to some up-scale resort where the waiters dress in tuxedos, serve colourful cocktails in spotless glasses, smile like movie stars, and are polite to the point of making me mental. My friends go to resorts and modern cities and rich places because they have limited time between working again and the next vacation. They want ease and comfort, the best life can offer at whatever price they can afford, even if they must go slightly in debt to pay for it. They want, if only for a few weeks per year, to maximize their enjoyment, going beyond the usual comforts of home and routine. It's a vacation. It's supposed to be fun. No one that I have seen has come to Asunción to frolic in the heated pool by the hotel lounge. Of course the people here are nice. Otherwise, someone would shoot them. There are such places one can go for such. It's a vacation only in the broadest sense. Most prefer leisure of a less intense sort. They want a holiday. They are happy to pay a lot of money for such time and pleasures. It is not a matter of the people being nice or even especially nice: it is a matter of paying a lot of money for a happy time.
I paid close to a gazillion iguanas in local bucks for my lunch last day, and I had a good meal whilst chatting with the family who own the place. It's cheap, all things considered. My bill was agonizingly calculated on a fancy receipt and handed to me with some formality through the cloud of flies buzzing my chicken bones. I took out my wallet and handed over a mega-gazillion iguana note, far in excess of the actual total required, and we all felt good that I would receive mucho cambio in return, I having the means to buy half of Paraguay with the iguanas in my wallet.
The friendliness of the staff and owners is genuine, especially because I have so much money to pass around. But had I been an iguana short and had I told them all that they are greedy and selfish and that social justice demands that I should eat and not concern myself with paying exactly what the bill announced, then I would have lost that good will so clearly shown to me when I paid rightly. Had I told them all that it is a moral issue, that I deserve to be treated like a human being of equal worth whether I have iguanas in my pocket or no, then I would have destroyed any pretences I might have of being a human being in a world of others. It's the money that makes us all decent and equal. Money makes me a man among men, and my morality, or lack thereof, has nothing to do with my payment of the bill. The people treated me well because I paid my bill. Had I not, then I might have been beaten. I would have violated all trust and decency expected of a reasonable man.
Social justice is all about the money one pays to respect the reciprocity of man giving and getting. No man is unequal when he can pay another for services rendered. The exchange is an act of beauty and love between men and women who understand the equality of giving and taking for giving. Anything less than full payment is an act of aggressive hostility.
Money allows strangers to meet in peace and to become friendly and happy in each other's company. Competition allows one to choose who will be loved and who will fail and be miserable till such time, if ever, that he learns to love others as well. With money, man becomes dog to man, his best friend, one who rolls over on his back to have his belly rubbed, who wags his tail and whoofs. Without the doggy-treats of cash man becomes dog to dog, ripping and tearing and barking blood. If I were to lose my wallet, I would be a beast among the best people in the world and they would hate me. I would have to die by my own hand unless they killed me first. Such is the right and the good. The alternative is a life of crime. Poverty is a crime. Money is love of others. One must be wealthy or live a dog's life.
Horniman: Breakfast of Paraguayan Champions
I will never forget, much as I would like to, my short and unhappy adventure at a roadside diner in South Carolina wherein I met the world's most beautiful waitress, a girl whose voice and accent I recall vividly to this moment, her voice ringing in my mind, her face shining bright before my mind's eye. She was one of those rare women who is beautiful beyond measure, and I, having slid into a booth by the window just for the sake of watching women passing by, perhaps to hit on some passing beauty in the diner itself, saw her!
She came to my table and bent over and asked, in that voice so sweet, what I would like? My mind rolled around like a cement mixer in high gear, and I said, full of fun and imagined delights with this honey from the South, that I would like coffee.
“How do you like it?” she asked, and perhaps here read more into it than I should. I didn't want to put her off by being a sexually predatory kind of guy, so I figured I'd slide into that later. I made a very funny joke instead, something light-hearted and silly to put her at ease. I said: “I like it strong and black-- the way I like my men.”
That was the wrong approach to take with this particular girl. Being 18 at the time I can write that I was inexperienced with girls. She straightened up and yelled to the kitchen window, “Hey, Elmo. We got us a ho-mo here!”
I am just guessing that Elmo had never seen a “ho-mo,” given that he came out from the kitchen to take a look at me. I stood up and explained that I had been making a joke with the waitress, but neither of them from that moment on spoke English any more, some kind of local patois that escaped me as I made my escape from the diner, taking with me a painful memory of the beauty who not only got away but left me lucky to get away with my self intact. Once they'd reached in their discussion my personal quality of Yankee-ness there is some certainty they would have concluded I am not a likeable person. Such is life on the road, then as well as now.
Today at the supermarket buying coffee I had a great opportunity to make a funny remark to the check-out girl about tea “Horniman Chinese Tea” to be exact. As luck would have it, she's not my type. However, with the couple of stiff drinks under my belt, maybe the Dag life of letch could change for the better.
I've never been a tea drinker, but I accept that life is dangerous and strange. Maybe it's tea time after all. Paraguay can do things to a man that might not happen to him elsewhere.
Horniman Tea (2): Cheery Guano Coffee
I was wandering through the market in central Santa Cruz, Bolivia later looking for some relief from the heat, a place to sit with a nice cup of coffee, and time to scribble a bit more of my travel tales in the Andes. As a side venture I was looking for a rubber tip for a wooden stick I had picked up the previous day and was using as a cane to take some of the weight off my sore knee, the pain perhaps stemming from the irregular paving stones and broken concrete side-walks that cause me to twist and stumble and further hurt an already bad joint. To make my life especially interesting I was also looking for a handle to complete this work-in-progress cane, a broom handle to anyone else. I could see the end result, a Celtic carved beauty of intricate design, a silver knob, a trick twist that would allow me to pull of a titanium sword to impale my enemies. Later on it broke, but that's probably not too important at this time. Of importance is that I was on the scout-out for coffee. Art is brief; the need for coffee is eternal. There, daydreaming in somewhat Latin, the gods found me and smiled. Raising my eyes to the heavens due to a nasty jolt of pain in my knee as I tried to mount a kerb I saw a decal on a bright red awning advertising Chiriguano Cafe. Can life get any better?
I like to think that I am like most people hobbling around in pain in the high heat of southern Bolivia on a shoestring budget with no real point in life; and so like them I found myself delighted at the thought of a nice cup of cheery guano coffee served by a 300 pound girl with no teeth, she smiling as if I don't have problems or something. Cheery. And like most others I do not get excited in a good way by Poutiguano coffee or, especially, by a big steaming bowl of Bitchiguano. I like mine cheery. Forget Horniman Tea, I'm, like, Guano-Guy! Alas, the gods were joking me, and the beans were unground. The gods had led me on. No cheery. No guano. I limped away, a sadder but, well, sadder man.
Clean, Well-Lighted Sheets
When I was recently arrived in Asunción and first got my little broom closet off the side-walk room at the hasty-stop across the street from the bus terminal I was one evening sick in bed, fouling the sheets and the mattress in the night. I cleaned up as well as I could, rolling up and tossing the sheets in a lump in a farther corner of the room, by my feet. It was too hot for sheets anyway, and the lack was no loss to me. I laid on my bare mattress and sweat and rose and readied my pack each day for my departure to some other place, somehow each day ending with me still in living in my room and next day paying for the coming night. A few days or so of this found the cleaning lady in my room while I was away. Upon my return I met The Stares from the desk. I shrugged it off, thinking I would soon be gone from their sight and memories, forgotten as the dirtiness of one old man on the road; and that anyway, the life of women is a matter of babies and geriatrics and it is the function of women to clean up after those who can't do such for themselves. And then I stayed a while longer, “the sheets” hanging in the background of every look I got.
I'm not, according to my own superficial self-survey, a filthy guy as a rule, and I tend toward the finicky for the most part under normal circumstances. But the initial impression on the hotel staff belied that idea, leaving all with the impression otherwise of me as a literal dirty old man, and impression that lingered long. But eventually I found myself in conversations with the pretty little cleaning lady who would stop in the patio to chat me up about the weather, who one morning as I sat typing in the courtyard offered me pills for upset stomach. She saw me, I suspect, as a sick traveller who was one night too ill in the broom closet with a broken ceiling fan by the side-walk.
During this inordinately long sojourn at the broom closet by the side-walk hotel that I stay at I have come to like the folks who run the place, and to particularly like the cleaning lady who feeds me mangoes and who turns on the overhead fan I forget about in the heat of the day as I type in the courtyard as she comes round to brush crumbs off my table from some earlier arrival's breakfast, who encourages me in improving my accent so she has a hope of grasping what my Spanish is trying to desperately to say. She smiles when I strain to pronounce the words just so, each one painfully and slowly coming from my mouth like a pearl that takes an age to make. She sits sometimes and shares her lunch with me, talking as if I understand her.
Today I sit sipping mate as I watch goldfish feeding in the aquarium in the back patio where the staff do chores, where the high-priced rooms are hidden from the rest of us. There are pictures hanging on the courtyard walls, a quiet overhead fan, jungle plants in barrel-size terracotta pots, brightly coloured knick-knacks to make it all homey, and an elaborate swing set for children. By small stages I have moved from the broom closet and dirty sheets into the semi-private lives of the hotel staff. With time I could continue this move further into local society, at some point becoming fully accepted as one of the people, once from somewhere else, and now from here. I could belong among friends, having a place among them as me myself. Now that my bull-whacking enthusiasm has waned due to lack of leaves left on the inner courtyard trees the cat has emerged from the bushes and finds a place near my feet to lay down on the cool glazed red floor tiles, finding a bit of comfort there. In time I think even the goldfish would feel the welcome vibrations of my coming to feed them, they rising to greet their dinner and me, like me rising to greet the hobbling lady at the diner down the block, she bringing me dinner and me cleaning up my dishes so to save her a trip across the room, her daughter standing quietly waiting for me to finish gazing into space so she can take my table outside to sit customers in the night where they will sit for hours drinking beer, chatting about stuff, shared interests and squabbles over trivia, they being together one kind of people from a specific place, boring, not very clean, too hot, too poor, and they can feel good about the local football team returned from a neighbouring nation where they won a victory on this road trip, returning home in triumph to cheers, laying in their beds at night feeling the surge of youth and health and the delights of home between clean, well-lighted sheets.
Once there was away.
It's just over four months now that I have been this time on the road, having gone from Lima to Asunción. This is probably as far south as I will go in South America this time round, assuming I ever come this way again. I haven't gone far in terms of miles, nothing to compare to those who travel the world in the usual manner, packing up and moving on every few days or so to some other place and activity, having seen a city or a nation, moving on to the next having been there for time sufficient to have been there. And what, really, is there in Asunción to hold the world traveller's attention for more than a day or two? Last day I spent some hours washing my clothes in a stone basin on the patio, and then I took out my sewing kit and stitched a bag and a pair of pants torn in the ruckus of moving, ending it all by reorganising the contents of my pack so all things barely fit again. To make my day complete I spent what was seemingly a suspiciously long time in the dairy section of the local supermarket, drawing the attention of armed security guards who watched me through dark sunglasses as they stood as motionless as I, like animals in the jungle, each waiting for that right moment to spring. Then, the the remorseless sun awaiting me, both of us blistering hot, I made my way back to my hotel room, my litre of milk warming nicely as I walked the block back home where I sat in the shade of the patio and typed for an hour, a slight spill of milk turning thick on the floor before I noticed it. Yes, I could do such mundane things anywhere, not needing to travel so far away as Paraguay at some expense to indulge in laundry and sewing and milk drinking and other boring activities of a dull life. But day-by-day, life is still life, and life goes on dully. My life hardly changes just because of where I might be this day, and four months from now I could be sitting, sewing, washing my clothes and watching them drip dry in the skin-baking sun where there might be bombs falling freely on a broken city, wild-eyed clots of ragged men firing shiny new sub-machine guns into the cloudless sky, red hot bullets falling randomly from the dust-white air killing the dazed and innocent shuffling home from the market with an armful of bananas and pita bread, no one bothering to look at them crumple to the ground and die. I will still have laundry to do and clothes to mend, a button to stitch, myself attended by unwelcome scrutiny of gun-carrying men watching me through dark sunglasses, me returning from a supermarket with warm milk in a plastic sack, another day in the life of a world-travelling man on the road.