Saturday, March 28, 2009

Paraguayan Friendliness

A quick example of typical Paraguayan hospitality.

Catherine needed some pictures for her visa so we went to a photo studio to get them. While they were being processed, the owner of the studio offered us cake and coke. Apparently our timing was impeccable because we just so happened to pick the same photo studio that was hosting a baby shower. Hence, the cake and coke.

When Cat's pictures were developed and the bill figured, the owner encouraged us to stay and take our time finishing up our unexpected--and delightful--snacks. We took her up on her hospitality and stayed an additional five or 10 minutes enjoying our treat and chatting with the owner and the woman who took Cat's picture. They were never in a rush to get rid of us and really seemed to enjoy our company. It was either that or our broken Spanish...

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Public Transportation: Austin vs. Asunción

I wrote this letter to the editor/article to the Austin American Statesman to highlight an Austin deficiency.

I am a Rotary Foundation Ambassadorial scholar living in the capitol city Asunción, Paraguay. It is a landlocked South American country, bordered by Argentina, Bolivia, and Brazil and it is the second poorest nation on the continent (ahead of Bolivia—the other landlocked nation). I write this to highlight a startling difference between Asunción and Austin: public transportation.

Before moving to Paraguay I lived in Austin for two and a half years on Congress and Riverside and then on 2222 and MoPac (where I will return in December when my scholarship period is over). In that time I became intimately familiar with the lack of a public transportation system. Moving from Boston, Massachusetts—where a subway system, buses, and taxis made owing a car unnecessary, even excessive—only highlighted Austin’s public transportation shortcomings.

Austin has a bus system, yes; however, it is inadequate in providing wide-ranging service to all parts of Austin and its surrounding cities. One must wait at bus stops that are few and far between for a bus that might not arrive for 20 minutes. Furthermore, the small fleet of buses serves as a reminder that much needs to be done to provide a comprehensive public transportation system. Taxis exist too, but they can be costly and difficult to find when one truly needs one.

Asunción, on the other hand, has a remarkable public transportation system. It might be the second poorest country in South America but it ranks far superior to Austin in its public transit infrastructure. Although Asunción does not have a subway or commuter-rail, its bus system more than makes up for those perceived pitfalls. Buses and bus stops are numerous and located in popular areas. Routes are plentiful. Service is fast and safe. One may take any number of buses to neighboring towns and cities or even the airport. To compliment the buses, there are an abundant number of inexpensive taxis that serve the city.

I mention these differences not to pan the city in which I live. I show them to illustrate a point. If a little-known South American city, with its significantly weaker economy and dramatically less funds, can give its residents a comprehensive public transportation system then surely Austin—a city with the money, resources, and political will—can do the same.

Furthermore, with Austin’s desire for more residents to move downtown and the increasingly ‘greener’ stance of its citizens, the city should embrace this lesson from its South American neighbor and its all-encompassing public transportation system. Increased bus and taxi service combined with a commuter-rail system (that is continually promised but continually delayed and, hence, never delivered) would dramatically improve Austin’s public transportation system. It would also give its citizens a much more viable option than they have now. Public transportation only becomes a feasible alternative to cars when it provides fast, reliable service combined with a service grid that has stops in places where people want to go.

Toll roads are not the answer. An efficient, effective public transportation infrastructure is.

The author is the recipient of a 2008-2009 Rotary Foundation Ambassadorial Scholarship, which allows him to study abroad for an academic year. He received his Bachelor’s degree in Interdisciplinary Humanities from Michigan State University and his Master’s degree in Dramatic Arts from Harvard University. He wrote this article while watching buses race down the street in front of his apartment at dizzying speeds.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Weekend Shutdown

Normally Saturday and Sunday are very busy times in the States. People flock to the stores, malls, theatres, and anywhere else they want to go because they have the time but mainly because everything is open. Stores on Saturdays generally offer extended hours to accommodate the increase in window-shopping traffic. Sundays, although generally not quite as busy as their weekend counterpart, still offer a wide variety of things to do to pass the time.

Paraguay, however, likes to take it slow on the weekend. Nothing, and I mean nothing, is open on Saturday and Sunday. Apparently, taking a day of rest is so important and cherished that Paraguayans take two. Not that I can blame them, however. It is rather nice knowing that you can relax for two straight days—whether you want to or not. In the interest of full disclosure I must mention the exceptions to the the-entire city-is-closed rule and that is the one thing directly related to the States: malls and movies. You may escape the summer heat or lack of anything else to do by visiting the mall, doing some shopping, and taking in a movie. Not a bad idea for a Saturday or Sunday afternoon.

I think a big reason nothing is open on the weekends is because it is prime assado (b.b.q.) time. Most Paraguayans will wake up early to grill what seems the equivalent of a half of a cow and spend the rest of the day eating and spending time with friends. It’s quite the tradition and quite the sight. In fact, it is ubiquitous to the point that every home comes equipped with a built-in grill specifically designed for assados. With such a strong tradition of passing weekends with friends it is no wonder that the country virtually shuts down two days out of the week.