I am on holiday. An actual, proper, holiday.
Not a trip to see relatives that involves traveling the length and breadth of the entire country five times in three weeks. Not a day off to see the city on the day no-one I know is presenting at a conference. Not an exhausted and guilt ridden afternoon out from field work, where you finally go visit that great big tourist attraction in the center of town everyone assumes you’ve already seen 6 months ago, because you’re obviously just here on permanent vacation for a year, right?
No, I am finally on an actual proper holiday for three weeks, and have refused to do any work whatsoever. Bring on the cocktails, the enormous meals, the frivolous shopping trips and the trashy trashy novels! Hurray!!
Its also great to see my friend Carly, whose house I Paraguay I am spending these weeks lounging about it. Given that both of us are stranded in this part of the world together over the festive season, we made a plan a few months back to spend Christmas and New Year together. Its wonderful to finally have someone to talk about my work with, who knows my project well and is great at giving both insight and encouragement. Carly also has the knack when it comes to persuading me I really do need to buy myself a very expensive pair of gorgeous 6 inch high heels to show off my new bright red pedicure. I’ll be taking a splash of Paraguayan va-va-voom back to Germanic Santiago with me after all.
Carly is doing fieldwork in Ciudad del Este, on the border of Brazil and Argentina, and has a wonderfully homey apartment here that’s a lovely relief after my somewhat spartan rented room in Chile. We decided to spend the week of Christmas here and the New Year on a beach in Brazil. The original plan had been to spend the whole time on the beach, but we eventually decided it would be more fun to take advantage of her apartment to cook an enormous and extravagant christmas dinner, and of course indulge in the most glitzy, tacky, over the top christmas tree we could muster. Although I really can’t get used to the idea of a summer christmas being “really” christmas, the sheer quantity of glittery bling we have smothered this apartment in helps get us half the way there. I’m a particular fan of the neon pink “present” tree ornaments, that have holograms of kittens in santa hats on them. Carly is more enamored of the shiny plastic champagne bottles ornaments, that are testing the strength of our poor bedraggled plastic christmas tree to the limit. (It was the last one left in the discount store on christmas eve, and it looks it.) We’ll be finding glitter in our hair for months to come.
I’ve never been to Paraguay before, so its been great to get to know it through Carly, whose detailed knowledge and experience of the city is testament to her skills as an ethnographer. After the subdued urban chic of Santiago, Ciudad del Este reminds me a lot more of my experiences in Peru or Bolivia, but not so much it feels familiar. For a start, the heat and humidity are overwhelming, as are the intense colours: the thick vegetation that smothers the city in lush greens; the rich red earth that seems to be seeping out of every crack in the pavement, sticking to your clothes and skin to follow you into the house. Plus Carly has the most fantastically bright yellow VW beetle that has a habit of breaking down in odd places, adding its own rather inconvenient splash of sunshine yellow to the landscape.
Paraguay is one of the few countries in South America where the entire population are bilingual in both Spanish and the indigenous language, Guaraní. Everyone from the president to the kids on the street speak both languages, code switching back and forth between them all the time. While other countries like Bolivia have large proportions of the population who are bilingual, its always the case that Spanish is the dominant language of power and elitism. That just everyone here is bilingual is remarkable. Not to mention that most people in Cuidad del Este are also fluent in Portuguese, because of the constant movement over the border to Brazil, and many also have some Arabic and/or Chinese because of the very large populations of migrants who have become permanent and prominent parts of the city. Talking to one of Carly’s friends last night, who speaks Guaraní, Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, Japanese and a little German and Italian, I felt really very ashamed of my ungainly Spanish.
There is always something quiet fascinating about border towns though, not only in the kind of linguistic and economic fluency they require of people who constantly juggle 4 different exchange rates and 7 different languages in their head. But also the very particular sense of space and movement they provoke.
Not long after I arrived we took a shopping trip to stock up on ingredients for our Christmas dinner. 40 degree heat be damned: we were cooking roast duck with prunes and red cabbage, roast potatoes and carrots, English christmas pudding with rum butter and English christmas cake with all the usual decorations. This involved heading out from our house in Paraguay mid morning, stopping off in Argentina for wines and some lunch, a visit to the super market in Brazil to get a frozen duck, almonds to make marzipan and some high-heeled Havanahs, eventually making it back home just around 5ish for tea. The whole afternoon involved two time zones, two languages, 4 currencies and nearly 3 pages worth of stamps in my passport.
Sometimes its not so easy. Saturday was a particularly hot day, so we decided to head to a shopping mall on the Brazil side of the border to hang out in the air conditioning and look for white clothes for new year. The road to the bridge that crosses the river-border between Brazil and Paraguay was chocked with traffic, and once we were trapped in there was no possible way of getting out. We sat there in the non-airconditioned bug for nearly 2 hours, in temperatures in the low 40s. It was so slow we had the engine off most of the time, lurching 2 meters forward in a tiny spurt of activity every ten minutes or so.
Once we finally got over the border and into Brazil, the poor bug collapsed at a traffic light, something ominous having happened to the clutch that caused the pedal to suddenly fall off mid-motion.
Two hot and bothered gringas in high heeled flip flops pushing a bright yellow Beetle down the road is probably not a typical Brazilian sight. But I’m happy to say its one that caused several guys on motor bikes to screech to a halt beside us and offer assistance. Sometimes a macho culture has its advantages. The only good thing is that we didn’t break down on the bridge itself, or in that impenetrable traffic jam. But then there is the complication of trying to arrange getting a mechanic from one side of a border to connect with a broken car on the other side, all without arousing the suspicion of twitchy border guards hot on the look out for car smuggling.
Hopefully the bug will be resurrected in time to take us to the Brazilian bus station tonight. We have a 16 hour bus journey booked to take us to Florianópolis in southern Brazil, where we’ll be spending the new year on a beach. I’ve never in my life had a beach holiday, and I’m not entirely sure what one is actually supposed to do. But I have a few James Bond novels and some recipes for rum cocktails, so I’m sure I’ll be able to figure something out. In fact, I think this holiday m’larky could be something I may develop a knack for.