Sunday, November 21, 2010

El condor pasa

In the courtyard of the hostel, an Italian is telling stories about his recent travels in Paraguay and Brazil. At the border of the two countries, he watched an unending stream of Brazilians pouring across into Paraguay. There was a border post there, but nobody seemed to be bothering to stop there. When he went to get his passport stamped, the officials were reading newspapers and seemed quite put out to have to actually lift their stamps. Outside, the Brazilian stampede continued. The basis of all this interest in Paraguay? It seems the Brazilians have just discovered credit cards. Their economy is booming, not just on the back of resources, but on a giant consumer credit binge. They are coming to Paraguay to buy cameras and laptops and mobile phones on the dirt cheap, uncontrolled Paraguayan market. The boom has driven local prices to crazy heights. Thirty real (fifteen euros) to catch a bus which in Argentina would cost a peso and a half. There's a madness about it. How can the poor, of which the country still possesses tens of millions, still afford to live there? And, as the Italian tells it, a certain easy-going joie de vivre has gone from the country. Now Rio and Sao Paulo resemble western cities, everyone working longer and longer hours to sustain their hunger for credit and the technological wonders it buys. Interestingly, when I took out cash in Paraguay, the ATM kept chanting phrases at me ending in 'en adelante': in advance. Seems the Paraguayans might be discovering credit cards too.

The Italian's English is excellent and he paints a vivid word picture of Paraguay that fits my own impressions. But whereas I found the place creepy, he was fascinated by it: its faded colonial buildings, its bizarre contradictions: a land-locked country with an (admittedly pitiful) navy, its homeless living under strips of plastic in the central plaza of Asuncion, with mobile phones hidden in their rags.

Also interesting is the story of the radiant beautiful American woman who works for a tiny tour agency near the hostel. She's a refugee from the madness of the American economy, which had seen her working as a paralegal for eight dollars an hour, with ten days leave a year. This is the norm now. Four weeks' leave is a 'perk' you can earn if you stay with a company long enough. Somehow she scraped together $3000 and now here she is. The Bolivian family she's staying with gives her board and food - admittedly it's bread for breakfast and dinner, only lunch is substantial - and she talks to the tourists in English. We go out for a beer and she's slightly embarrassed because her daily budget is one US dollar. Ice-cream and internet, she says. She has five hundred dollars left, and when it runs out, she has to leave. I shout her the beer, but she won't accept any food: she's adjusted to her Bolivian food schedule, doesn't get hungry any more. She tells me she tried chicken's feet, brains and eyes for the first time that day. The family just slaughtered a chicken and nothing goes to waste here. When in Bolivia, she says. But when I see her two days later she tells me she's been sick as a dog. She doesn't know what it was, but personally I think the eyes have it...

I link up with a German guy to do a two-day trek into Amboro National Park, to visit the 'cloud forest', with some of the world's oldest and largest ferns. It's a tough slog, up some Kokoda-like slopes at altitude, the guide hacking his way through places where the trail has grown over. The guide only speaks Spanish during the trek, so I'm at sea with his explanations a lot of the time, but fortunately my German companion understands a bit more, and can translate when my Spanish fails. At night we sit around the fire, and, since we're reduced to a primitive level of conversation, it turns into a naming game. I learn the Spanish for lots of basic things, like carrots, bears, shins and smoke. Funnily enough, the one language we can all speak at least a little bit of - English - is the one that hardly gets used.

In the night it pours. The tent is old and falling apart, and water seeps up into my sleeping bag. I stuff what clothes I can into my backpack to keep them dry, lie awake listening to the thunder and the rain thrumming on the fly. The next day we press on towards the summit of the mountain, in drizzle and fog, the ground now slipping and collapsing under our boots. I'm taught to chew coca leaves to ward off cold, hunger and fatigue. They are harmless and non-addictive, and don't give you a high, but I do notice the effect, a new lightness of step.

It's truly wild at the summit, no trees any more but a heath of lichens, algae, mosses and tiny wildflowers. We are standing in a sea of cloud that boils all around, blasts up the cliff face like ocean spray. The white abyss feels like the edge of the world. But then wind rends the cloud and another mountain looms in the tear, clambering jungle and rocky spurs and escarpments. Now I feel our vertiginous position. We watch the clouds broil and swirl and break, revealing and concealing the surrounding range, annihilating the forest then creating it again, a vast and fluid sleight of hand. Vultures and falcons reel about in the airy gulf.

Later in the day we stop for lunch at the edge of another cliff. The now intense sun has melted the clouds and the night's rain has rinsed the humidity from the air. We can see as far as the Andes. As we sit with our feet at the edge of the cliff, we receive our parting gift. From far left, a pair of silver wings rides the thermals that flow up the side of the mountain. Nearer and nearer it comes and then sweeps past: a rarely seen Amazonian condor, so close we can see its eyes, every feather in the black splay of its wingtips as it balances on the currents, lifting higher, higher, further away, at last cresting the ridge of the cordillera and plunging from view. It leaves a trace of chill beauty on the wind.

We sit a while eating in silence, watching the patchwork shadows move on the land. Then we heft our packs again. There's a lot of ground to cover to make Samaipata by evening.


Wryly said...

This isn't fiction is it Pierz?
Funny reading your bio that you like chess, and I'm just playing someone now, and you play classical guitar and so do I! Then I remembered that you were taught by my friend Ray Craven, same as I was!

Pierz Newton-John said...

Hi wryly. No, not fiction. Blogging my way around South America at the moment. Ray Craven! Took me a few moments to drag up who that was! A long time ago... I spent more time with James Loomes. But how did you know? If you go back a post or two you'll see my thoughts about Barrios and Paraguay.

I heard chess and guitar use the same part of the brain...