Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Saudade in Paraguay

One of my dreams about coming to South America was that I would play some of the guitar pieces I've been playing for years in the places they were composed. Especially Paraguay, where Agustin Barrios, one of my favourite guitarist-composers was born. A romance built on nothing much but some fantasy of otherness, a dream of exotic lands conjured by Barrios' lyrical music. The Parana River runs between Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina, and just a few kilometres from where it plunges so spectacularly over the abysses of Iguazu, there is a place where the corners of the three countries meet. At night its peaceful and pretty, the river moving slowly down towards the falls, the lights of small towns on the Brazilian and Paraguayan sides playing on the water. It was here I chose to indulge my romantic folly, bringing my guitar and sitting on a step near where the bank sloped down to the river, and playing music from all three countries: a tango for Argentina, a samba for Brazil, and Barrios' Choro da Saudade (choro of longing) for Paraguay. The heavens didn't open, Barrios' ghost didn't appear to guide my fingers or to stand nodding in the shadows of the rainforest in the feathers and indigenous garb he favoured when performing. But couples who'd come to hold hands and take in the balmy night listened quietly, a man offered me a sandwich and a drink. I doubt anyone saw the musical synchronicity of the performance.

The choro da saudade. So beautiful, and I suspect it's the piece Barrios would play himself if he saw Paraguay today. There's not much left of the jungles he called home. Today it's a land known for three things: environmental vandalism, corruption, and cheap electronic goods. And the world's second largest dam, the grave of waterfalls said to have been more marvellous than Iguazu. No industry to speak of, its ecotourism potential squandered, you cross the border from Argentina and straight away you're in the real third world. I'd forgotten. The streets filthy, littered with trash, dog shit, rubble. Mangy one-eyed cats. Women with grubby infants on their hips, kids selling cheap bananas or apples or chewing gum at the intersections, or cleaning windscreens in falling apart sneakers and rags.

I have to cross Paraguay to get to the capital Asuncion so that I can fly to Santa Cruz in Bolivia. I wonder, as I sit in the dilapidated bus terminal, how many people would recognise Barrios if I played him there. None, I suspect. When I saw the road from the border of Argentina to Asuncion on the map, I'd pictured rainforest, but as I gaze out the window in my haze of traveller's fatigue, it's a singularly prosaic landscape that the streetlights illuminate. This was rainforest once, but no more. It's clear-felled, hastily, shittily developed. Barrios, your choro would do the crying for you.

I'm hungry, had no time for dinner, and when a woman gets on the bus carrying on her head a load of what look like bagels wrapped in a big sheet, I haven't a single guarani to buy one. The smell is a torment. The bus was supposed to arrive at midnight but it doesn't get there till after one. I leave the bus terminal and the city is a ghost town. This is no Buenos Aires, which would be waking up right about now. My eyes are gritty with sleep, my back hurts from slinging that massive backpack too carelessly onto my shoulders, my knee aches from some other unidentified insult. Thank you, trusty old body, for putting up with this. I look at the neon signs of grotty, unappetising hotels across from the station. No. I'm still too fastidious for that. A taxi appears on the empty and I get in, ask for the Plaza Hotel mentioned in my Lonely Planet guide.

Asuncion at night. Spookily quiet. Streetlights and dust and broken pavements and locked up stalls, Spanish signs at drunken angles. I watch the driver's head. Decide how to handle getting out in order to avoid the possibility of him driving off with my worldly belongings. That cultural vulnerability again. On one corner, "ladies of the night", or are they ladies at all? They look muscular, tough, like soldiers in fishnets and leather miniskirts. Utterly impenetrable, not that you would ever, ever want to try. Brutal, sad, grotesque sexual parodies, the antithesis of eroticism.

The hotel is empty, hospital corridors in bare neon light, grimy stairs. A kind of Graham Greene dissolution about the place. Am I dreaming? It has the feeling of dreams with nobody in them. The bed is all springs and bumps, the pillow dirty. Mosquitoes whine and feed, sleep recedes from my advance like fog. I've crossed into the dead zone, when sleep buses no longer come to pick you up. Though in the end oblivion comes. Oh Paraguay.

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