[A brief reminder that my book, An Occasional Walker, is available at this link.]
I broke the number one cardinal Dag-rule numero uno recently when I changed my pants and forgot to fill the new pockets with toilet paper. I often forget to take out the paper from the old pants, and I am guilty of gumbing up a lot of washing machines, but it's only when I forget to swap that I feel any pangs of remorse. I felt those pangs and more when I took a walk from the Asunción bus terminal up the back way for a few miles to see something new of the city, my marathon walk in the opposite direction some day or so before whetting my thistles for more fancy Paraguayan sights. Having fortified myself with a quart of soda and another of orange juice, off I went, chipper after a sleepless night of sweating and groaning in the heat of my broom closet till an hour that has a foreign number in my world. In that night I'd had an urge to use the bathroom, that being down a hallway and around some corners; thus, being a man of science, I decided to do an experiment, i.e. I peed in a cardboard container to see the difference between input and output, about a cupful to two liters. In the morning my teeth were stuck to my lips, sending me first to the supermarket for a litre of chocolate milk and another of peach juice, with which I washed down a tiny banana. I spent some time writing the compelling story of my life in Paraguay, and freshly dressed, showered, shaved, and so on, off I went, full of youthful vigor and bouncy steps at least two miles before I realised too late that I had forgotten to bring toilet paper.
Not to worry, I screamed, I can use a facility at the café across the street, the place with an outdoor deck that caved in and sent me knee deep into the sub-floor as the planks gave way. The stench got me out of that spot in a pronto big hurry, my leg scratched but not broken, the owner looking impassively at the hole in his floor, customers drinking quarts of beer, not bothering to laugh. I bought a litre of soda and asked for the men's room, which is generic at this particular establishment, around the corner and up the steps and around back on the hill, an outhouse, as it happens, that sort of eventually meanders under the cafe and the floorboards I caved in, scientifically explaining the odor I encountered earlier. These are things one finds in the life of avid world travel. As well, one finds resourcefulness in a life such as this, one suddenly lacking toilet paper in an outhouse in Paraguay, for example. Fishing in my pockets for anything at all in the pinches, I suddenly discovered a great use for the local money, hauling out a 2,000 iguana note, which I parted with more profitably than I had any other before or since. My day was saved, and perhaps the day of some terrible poor bum will be saved too if he ever finds those iguanas in a time of need. Two thousand iguanas? I laugh. I went to the bank and got a gazillion more just for fun. I thought about buying dinner with it, but I hate to waste money. Iguanas or no, it pays to be thrifty. It pays to pay attention too to rules. I will remember this from now on.
Later that same lifetime:
One has to have travelled from the Modern world to the less than modern and to have done so for a long while in less than middle-class comfort, like, say, Club Med, to know what it means to live a life without toilets of the genuinely functional kind we all know and never give a second thought. I have been and for long periods, to places where there just aren't any toilet. Hence, my seeming obsession with such. By chance I wasn't thinking about toilets at all the 100+ Fahrenheit afternoon in Asunción on F. de la Mora street where I was mauled by a drunk so happy to see me he had pee-ed himself. I might have been happy to see him too, if I could have thought of a reason. As it was, I just wanted to get away fast, so I reached into my pocket and pretended to take a picture of something, being anything at all, to distract him. Right in front of me, like a sign from above, was a sign above. I say, “Give it up for Jesus.” The drunk stumbled away, which is a miracle in itself, but the whole scene makes me wonder if this, if not life itself, isn't some kind of notice to me about reforming my evil ways and telling me to sit down and reconsider all that I am and do. This is so far my deepest thought about toilets.
Life for a Paraguayan is family: husband, wife, and children; his way of making a living; his belonging to a group of related people who share a language and customs and a past that stretches beyond his knowledge and imagination. Life is about man and his eating and sleeping and sitting around drinking beer and chatting with his mates; shopping with his wife and kids; going to work and making money; having a sense that his football team can win the big game; that the nation itself is where his life is right, even if it's wrong. This is so simple it should not have to occur to me. This normal does occur to me because I see it in people around me and hear it when I converse with them. I don't chat up political figures at the National Assembly, don't deal with multi-national businessmen, and have no contact with intellectuals here. I meet people like myself, working-class men and women who have private lives and small extensions into the world of work and neighbours. Like many other places I've visited, however briefly in this part of South America, this too is Sarah Palin world, i.e. a simple working-class land of men and women and children who do not obsess over the latest fashions of ideology with which to supplant underdeveloped character with alien identity. Here, folks just live.
My own 'area' is much different, and my life and the lives of those I know best reflect the sad time we live in, one of reckless pursuit of privacy as publicity, of career over family, of ideology over sense and sensibility. Here in Paraguay is the remains of the 19th century I so like. In the north my life is measured by my work, my identity tied to my public place in the social world, my private life being of little importance in comparison to who I am in the sphere of the General Will. Rather than who, I am what. So it is with those I know, mostly childless careerists who are something rather than someone. Those with children have something children, not someone children. Thus it goes (the pursuit of Modernity) to a dusty tomb prepaid. I am, as it were, a writer of fine books. Those books are about me and my time in some places. I'm an artist rather than a father and husband. In Paraguay I am not merely a foreigner, I am an alien. I have no one and do not belong even in the world, a writer of not much importance dwelling on fleeting pubic affairs of private others in flux. Few seem to notice.
I find it difficult to like Asunción, the city in these brief days of my visit being painfully hot and humid, making my life uncomfortable, to say little; and compounded with the general untidiness of an underdeveloped economy, a city unusually dingy even for a place of little wealth, it wears on me, even though the people here are often smiling and friendly and willing to engage in a chat about their personal affairs into which I am allowed as a man who is one man among men, an individual regardless of my social standing, sometimes treated affectionately, like a lost child, the maternal rising from women half my age, the paternal flowing from a calloused man on the street. In spite of my profession I am to most of those I meet, just a man, if one somewhat confused about the language, out of place for now but one who in the next moment or so will suddenly be like all others, a man of equal standing. Yet, I resist. I don't like looking at the people here, generally, the majority being obese and slightly off in features that make the smile beautiful. I am too equal in this way. When the locals smile and greet me and ask about my state of emotional well-being, when they shake my hand and look expectantly at me for happiness and well-wishes, I wish I were alone rather than surrounded by men and women all lumpy and sagging in faded stretch-pants and printed tee-shirts, beer drinkers slightly goofy and sort of grinning, toothless mouths full of starch, sugar, and fat, like a summer evening picnic by the railroad tracks at a trailer park on the outskirts of a small California town in the foot hills. My kind of people; and I wish often I were among others, slightly more sophisticated, those who would know about Nietzsche's sister Elizabeth and her Nazi commune in the jungle. I see instead whole families waddling together hand in hand down the rotting cement sidewalks, leather covered barrel jugs in hand, dripping soda and beer down their shirts, people laughing, mothers caressing and fathers adoring, children hugging and shiny-eyed with love. I'm uncomfortable here. I wonder where is beauty; why is a family so happy with such fat people as theirs? Where is that critical aesthetic sense that would allow such people to reject their families for higher forms of being?
In Asunción it is usual for me to consider life here as opposed to the Freak-Show Identity Performance Rage in the U.S. I don't see anything remotely like the Freak-Show here, or anywhere in South America that I've been, possible exceptions being the odd Argentine backpacker dressed up in ersatz “native” pyjamas and toting an embroidered bag from the local craft market. Locally there is no “Gay Pride Day” parade of old men having oral sex with each other daytime weekdays on public streets in San Francisco, as the writer/photographer Zombie chronicles on the Internet. There are no racially motivated rampages through commercial areas, looting, burning, and killing, as one sees in London, England or many cities in America. There are no semi-retarded demagogic politicians such as Shirley Jackson Lee inciting hatred in public. Nor does one witness outbreaks of mass hysteria over passing politicians such as George Bush, Jr. No mass campaigns of public sentimentality and sanctimonious preening to show the world that one is “sorry” that ones fellows have elected a popular politician rather than an unpopular one. Screaming women frothing like dogs do not march en masse demanding “the right” to access to abortion for children without the consent or knowledge of the child's parents. And nowhere in the Andean nations so far as I have seen do masses of people camp out in public parks demanding money to pay off student loans for Masters Degrees in Puppeteering. I would have noticed such things had they happened. They do not. There is no Freak-Show here.
Paraguay is just about everything the Freak-Show hates about America, only moreso. People here eat poorly, salt, sugar, alcohol, tobacco, fat, and endangered species, as well as the usual meat and poultry. There is little attention paid to environmental concerned such as littering. Building regulations are about zero, and union membership is about non-existent outside Communist hold-over groups. Racism is rampant in that everyone considers himself a normal person, oblivious to the privileged “systemic” racism implanted in the Whiteness of the ruling class. Nobody gives a shit. There are no spotted owls or delta smelts to destroy an economy over, and building dams here is a fine thing that provides money and electricity to this something of a back-water place of fairly contented people who love their country and think Americans are people much like themselves. No one I have met here thinks Paraguay is the worst nation in history, more destructive than any and all combined, the one nation that has taken over from the worst of the Nazi era, second only in evil to the Jooos. I have yet to meet an anti-Semite in this very Catholic nation. I meet mostly fat people who live quiet lives, people who like to go on short trips around the country to see things and have a bit of enjoyment of the scenery with family and friends. Not yet have I met anyone obsessed with the evils of Israel, no one yet who lauds suicide bombers in the Middle East, no one who thinks Shari'a is a good thing for this nation or that those who oppose such are fascists. Just ordinary fat people getting along.
In many ways I am an ordinary fat guy getting along. Before I became a fat guy with a limp I was a bicycle racer, moving like a strong wind across the land, up hills jeeps and motorcycles couldn't begin to make, that would wind most hikers, across miles of country that only a dedicated athlete could endure, and day after day for years. I was, as were my mates, a sight to cheer at as I rode my bike with them in perfect cadence and fluidity, marvels of the human body, elegant figures in shiny yellow Spandex jersey, Lycra tights, and muscle, man sleek and glistening and strong. Spectators cheered just from looking at me and my mates. We were a glory to behold. But that was then. A decade of sickness and injury and a sedentary life have wasted that state and left me sick of myself, old, fat, and ugly.
I used to despise fat people and those who could not, for whatever reason, compete with me and mine in attaining perfection in our sport. Those whose skill and equipment fell short of ours were contemptible in my eyes. I made it a point to humiliate each and every one, if only they knew, by being superiour as I passed them and showed it can and must be done. They were meant to see themselves in comparison to me and to be ashamed, to dismount their bikes and walk or take a bus.
I was also a well-educated book-reader then, having wasted perhaps a million dollars of the tax-payers' money on the study of poetry and world literature. And a world traveller, too, always having some fascinating and funny anecdote to tell at any given moment. More, I was dangerous. Filled with fears and hatreds then as now, I fought hard to keep my hellish nature from spewing onto the lives of others, destroying them emotionally as well as physically, sickening my self in the aftermath, seeing what I had done to those, even if deserving, not deserving of that. But it is that very madness that made me a winner in so many impossible races against younger and stronger men: no pain is worse than not winning. There was no pain I could not endure for the sake of victory, no matter how trivial the win. Such Berserker determination is frightening to others, as well as to me. Less obvious, my curiousity, even more dangerous than most can know.
We often play to our strengths, even if such strengths are destructive. Today a fat old man with limp and battle scars from too many scraps with desperate men, failing eyesight from an old wound, and sickness from a life of want and neglect, awful pains recurring from strange illnesses in exotic lands, a limp from one too many crashes into immovable objects, I look at those around me who, though often rulers of the status quo in our time and queens of the social scene, like the woman roughly my age, her grey-black hair chopped to the scalp, the mole on her chin sporting three braided black hairs hanging down to her open necked shirtfront, her black denim jeans and black motorcycle boots completing her “professional political lesbian” look. She stared at me, back then, enraged that I was so silently contemptuous of her but wouldn't make eye contact where we stood side by each at the second-hand store where she clutched a pile of kitch, didn't give her the opportunity she so pleaded for to vent her rage against me in public. I avoided her stare because I am cruel, knowing that she was desperate to be known as a woman despised by the likes of me; that she is a victim of my male oppression of females. The more I ignored her, the more enraged she was, wanting more than life itself to scream that she is someone to be noticed and feared and brought low before. Her companion joined her and they kissed deep and drooly in the line-up by the cashier, daring me or anyone at all to visibly recoil. This is the Freak-Show, and these actors have their hour upon the stage. I've had my hour too. In Asunción today it is the hour of the family, the hour of fat people laughing and eating, drinking beer and strolling together as families in the heat, sweating and smoking and smiling. They triumph in spite of it all, feeling only the glow of each other in mutual admiration and love.
On the sidewalk in front of my hotel there are from corner to corner at any given minute probably a thousand people doing something of personal interest, waiting for a bus, standing in line for a sausage from a street vendor, chatting with a friend, waiting for a phone call, and so on. Dostoyevsky might have written terrifying novels about these people if he'd met them and had a lifetime to write about them, and so too might have Faulkner, those specific thousand at one moment on this street. Shakespeare might have found in them universal passions and follies that could have kept his career going for eternity in a thousand people on this sidewalk in Asunción, and so too could Tolstoy have written grand scenes of their lives in the war and peace of the nation. But as the hour passes, so too do those standing by my window. A different thousand come and go, and so it goes through the night and into the next day forever, so far as I can guess. A great novelist can tell a few stories about a few people in the short time of his life, but the people keep coming and going, changing in some deep ways, remaining universal through the ages nonetheless. Here the people are Paraguayan, a meaningful thing at this time, on this day, on this street. The universal Paraguayan will be as universal and any man anywhere, but the Paraguayan will be today a man not at all the same as his counterpart next hour, next day, or next year. He will be as different in time to come as he is different from the woman standing next to him now. The pieces have value, the rules remain, but the game is always different, and far more complex than chess can ever be, the patterns not exiting in the human world. Basically, at least to me, men are as ultimately unknowable as the movement of Hume's billiard ball.
Today I speak to Paraguayans on the street, and tomorrow I will meet others, all of them similar in their Paraguayanness, all of them as different as snowflakes. What I don't know about the people today is profound, and what they won't understand about those to come is equally so, I think. These windows are closed, though we might imagine well what lies behind the shutters of another man's life. Having done so, there is the next man, and many are too strange to anticipate or grasp even in the best of clinics. How does one account, for example, for Stroessner or Mengele? And how does one account for the mass of men here who have heard of neither? How do we deal with those not having yet been born? We do not, even so much less as we do with those by our shoulders on the sidewalk. All is flux, and we can only know some small realities if we search hard.
I look for reality in the works of Sophocles, and sometimes I see the Sophoclean truth in a man standing on the street in Asunción at a bus stop. But I don't see the truth of a Paraguayan on a motorcycle seeing his grandfather pulling a plough across the scrub land of El Chaco, stooping in the sun to plant corn for the family who will not know motorcycles for a hundred years to come. The Paraguay I see today is a Paraguay that will not be here tomorrow. Some old bones will remain hidden in the depths of the body of men, but the flesh will disappear and be reborn as something other. I know so little, and yet, even those alive and Paraguayan today will know little more in time to come.
So, knowing so little of Paraguayans today and expecting to know nothing of those who will change the fabric of life to come I have to look for the basics, those things that will never change, here or there, ever.
I have no idea whether this is a work-day or the weekend here in Asunción, Paraguay, it all looking pretty much the same to me everyday so far, which is to say scenes of lethargy, all too hot to move around. I got up this morning and began my day with a quart of hard stuff from the supermarket up the street, a box of chocolate milk to put my body in hyper-drive for the frantic pace I think I should have on a trip like this, seeing everything possible, doing daring deeds only a tourist on a tear can live with himself, having done it all beyond the view of his own who could be judgmental about such things; like being in Las Vegas only on a budget that includes such things as ice-cream on a stick and window-shopping at tourist places that sell leather covered water-melon size containers for drinks. But I feel I should tell the truth on these pages, no matter how poorly it reflects on me, so I confess that I also got with my chocolate milk a huge bottle of diet soda to mix it with. I like to think of myself as a happening kind of guy, and I am mostly very surprised that young women don't notice me, at least in a good way; but I sometimes see some geezer huffing up the street, and I see that he might well be ten years younger than I and looks, hate to say, probably as old as I do. I don't feel old. I feel pretty young. I miss the part that should tell me I don't have a clue about the rest of the world's vision of me. The world doesn't see me the way I see myself, nor do I see the world the way it so often is once I get a closer look at it. I live and learn some. Today, though, I haven't figured out so far what day it is. The chocolate milk didn't help at all. I am as in tune as today will allow for.
Whatever day it is, this is the day the landlady changed the sheets in my broom closet. I knew that when I saw her scowling at me. She was wringing out two sheets, and they happened to be mine. She hadn't yet washed them. I lose a lot of pounds in the night, and the mattress is maybe sort of ruined by now. The lazy fan above my bed is not going to help the situation. The good news is that few tourists actually come to Asunción. That's good news because... I forget why. We can skip that part too. If not for the heat here, the dust and the diesel fumes, the ubiquitous fat ladies in stretch pants and tight tee-shirts, and the beer-drinkers on the sidewalk making me nervous about a street fight I would likely lose these days even if I won, I still think it's a good idea to move if only to get away from the landlady. It might be different if me losing all this weight in the night added up to me losing some weight during the day, but I'm still a fat guy and the landlady isn't giving me the eye in a good way. That much I do know.
I did some typing in the morning to justify my existence, and while I was doing that and running off to the bathroom between times, the cleaning lady, she who likes me and gives me Spanish lessons, sat me down at the table in the courtyard and gave me a giant mango, bless her soul. I can hardly keep down chocolate milk and diet soda, so I played around the edges of the mango till the lady cut deep and wide, showing me how a man goes at a mango. I explained that I never had a mother. Sometimes a joke is not as funny as it is meant to be. Great mango, and much of it. I had to eat it or I was not allowed to have any vegetables.
Some urgent trips to the bathroom later I was able to stay at the bus terminal long enough to find the ticket office selling my passage to Nuevo Germania. I couldn't stay so long as to make a real inquiry, having to run across the street to use the bathroom again. But being a Man of Steel-- Stalinesque in my touristic mind-- I returned to the bus terminal and found that for a mere 60,000 million iguanas I can go the 300 or so kilometers on a dirt road to the jungle to visit the old proto-Nazi colony of Nuevo Germania founded by Elizabeth Forster-Nietzsche and her suicidal husband, Homer. Or Gomer. Or Fritz of some sort. The point is that he was German. The settlement, of whatever sort I might find, is, importantly, $10.00 north of here. That much I can say with some certainty. The rest is as hazy as a day in the rain here in Asunción. The word on the Internet is, like a Monty Python review of Australian wine, “Beware.” Or was that about mangoes on a sick stomach? One becomes the other in my mind, a trip to the jungle to see a Nazi utopian commune/home to Dr. Mengele and a trip to the bathroom.
I have no idea what day it is, no solid idea where I'm going in Paraguay, or what I'll do in Nueva Germania if the bus actually goes there rather than to some spot miles away from which I will have to walk in the hope of finding something like a fetid Valhalla in the jungle. Knowing not much of anything at all, I still think I'll find a village at Nueva Germania populated by drooling and blind German retards selling air-brushed “I Heart Mengele” tee-shirts at palm covered road side stands, old blond guys in sunglasses listening to Stevie Wonder tunes on ghetto-blasters, geezers in flip-flops selling beer in coconut shells, little plastic umbrellas to take home as souvenirs. Maybe some black and white “Hitler conquers Poland” postcards. Just a guess on my part. I'm so wrong about so many things that I won't even be surprised if I'm wrong about Nueva Germania. It could well be (and probably likely is) populated by strapping young German milk-maid babes in traditional Swiss farm-girl dresses that show off their boobs in delightful ways. Giving this some clear and rational thought I won't be surprised if the old Nazis had it right, and I'll find alpine yodeling uber-mensch in leiderhosen stomping their jackbooted feet in time to the flogging of the local peasant slave population. That's what I think is more likely than finding a group of degenerates descended from a group of Nazi utopianists. I'll survive that just fine.
What would kill me is losing my wallet, the only thing that keeps me from either prompt and efficient suicide or life sitting between the two corpulent but garrulous ladies on the sidewalk down the street from my hotel, those two who see me for the stud I really am, they calling me handsome and beckoning me to join them, which I might have to do if I were to lose my wallet, being reduced to becoming a male prostitute or otherwise to face death. It's the money I have that spares me from the worse of this life. Unlike Mengele, no one in Nueva Germania cares if I live or die. I'm an outsider there, one way or the other. I am under no illusions that the folks of Nueva Germania will feed me mangoes or drink me milk choco-la-tay. Some things I just do know. Life is hard, and dreamers die in bad ways, on Mondays as well as Sundays, even if I don't know which day it is.