Sunday, September 27, 2009

Look Both Ways Before Crossing The Street

Mom's age-old advice about making sure no cars are coming before you cross the street rings especially true in Asunción. This is a city where the car--not the pedestrian--has the right of way. Be it a major, four-lane road or a single lane one-way street, it is wise to check both directions before taking that fateful first step off the sidewalk and into the street. Sometimes you even need to check the sidewalk for that random motorcycle who feels like using your designated walkway as a personal lane to skip the traffic. More on this later.

The major roads are pretty easy. Everyone knows to look both ways and proceed with caution. Most people will wait for an intersection before daring to leave the safety of the sidewalk; however, since there is no jay walking law here you may occasionally find that brave soul who throws caution to the wind and crosses in the middle of the street. My wife and I have been known to do this as well, especially on a hot day and the other side of the street beckons us with its shade. Keep in mind that when you do cross, be it at an intersection or the middle of the street, to keep an eye out for two things: motorcycles moving up between the lanes and that overzealous driver who speeds past everyone in the oncoming traffic's lane to make the green light.

Somewhat trickier are the smaller roads (two lanes or fewer) since they might be two-ways or one-ways. The signs marking these streets' directions are generally small and difficult to find, if they exist at all. This makes knowing which way to look especially tricky. Furthermore, since these smaller roads tend to be found mostly in residential areas (downtown being the big exception), people frequently cross them whenever and wherever they please. The best way to know which direction the traffic flows on these streets is to memorize it. You could look at which way the parked cars face, but that can be misleading since cars will park whichever way suits their fancy at the time. (Those of you who live in Texas know what I'm taking about.) Another seemingly smart thing to do is see which way the cars are heading and deducing from there where to look before crossing. But again, I urge you to exercise caution when doing this. Cars are known to ignore the signs--and sometimes other cars traveling in the opposite direction--to go down a one-way street so they do not have to travel around the block. It can be quite surprising to see a car whiz past you going in the wrong direction down a street that you know is a one-way.

As you may have noticed, motorcycles have no problem driving between lanes to get farther ahead. They also have one other trick they employ when they just don't want to use the streets. They drive on the sidewalk. That's right, if traffic is bad or the road just doesn't hold that magical appeal anymore the motorcyclist will opt for the sidewalk. And you better watch out. It doesn't matter if you were there first or even the trivial fact that sidewalks are made for walking, if Mr. Motorcycle wants to drive down it you are the one who's moving. To avoid this, maybe you should cross the street...

Looking both ways before crossing the street is not only sage advice passed on from mother to child; in Asunción it's a survival technique.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Paraguay's Two Seasons: HOT and Not Quite As Hot

As today's high hit 94 wonderful degrees, I realized that Spring has officially hit Paraguay. Even though the new season doesn't officially start until next Tuesday (Sept. 22), the oppressing heat has returned to remind everyone that even more oppressive summer heat is just around the corner. And in that brief description are Paraguay's two seasons: HOT and Not Quite As Hot.

The summer months--December, January, and February--are unbearably hot. Temperatures average at least mid 90s during the day (with most days above 100) and, at the lowest, mid 80s at night. Humidity never breaks, not even for a day and not even when it rains. When it does rain, outside feels like a steam bath. March and April offer no respite from the heat. Days might dip into the low 90s but the nights are still just as hot. May is the first month where the glimmer of cooler weather starts to emerge. But by 'cooler weather' I mean temps in the 80s. I guess cool is a relative term. Winter, described below, ushers in Paraguay's second season. Once those all too short three months are over, it's back to the season of HOT. Thanks, September, for reminding us that Paraguay hasn't forgotten how to turn the streets of Asunción into an oven.

I must admit that Cat and I enjoyed a nice three month reprieve: June, July, and August. Aside from a few cold nights where the mercury registered the low 40s, the temperature still averaged in the 70s during the day and 50s at night. Coming from constant triple digit highs and lows in the mid 80s, highs in the 70s were incredible. And we felt nice and cool.

Unfortunately, Cat and I won't see those nice, cool temps until December when we return to the States and Northern Hemisphere winter. Texas will be going through its own version of Not Quite As Hot and Cat and I will take full advantage of it. Plus, we'll have air conditioning everywhere we go, be it in a house, a car, a store, a restaurant, everywhere! Oh, the possibilities are endless.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Spanish Speaking Milestone

While on vacation a few weeks ago in Chile, my parents, Cat and I returned to Santiago from Viña del Mar via a bus. When we arrived at the bus station a taxi driver greeted us at the bus and offered to take us to our hotel. Cab drivers normally approach bus passengers and offer to drive them to their hotels, apartments, etc. so this was nothing abnormal. We decided to go with this particular driver for whatever reason and piled into his car.

The driver suggested that we take the freeway to our hotel because it would be faster and easier than taking surface streets. Based on what little I knew about the city (having been there only once before) it sounded reasonable and not like he was trying to take advantage of us out-of-towners.

As promised, the ride was fast and easy. I sat in the front and enjoyed a nice conversation with the driver. When we arrived at the hotel everyone else unloaded the luggage from the trunk while I paid the driver the fare plus a small tip. However, this did not seem to satisfy him. He pulled out a 1000 peso bill and gestured vigorously at me with it.

The following took place entirely in Spanish.
The cab driver told me that I still owed him 1000 pesos. Wanting to make sure I understood him correctly, I asked him to repeat what he just said? He said again that I owed him 1000 pesos. Surprised, I asked why I owed the extra money? He told me that the freeways were in fact toll roads and that I owed him for those tolls. I asked why he did not tell me this beforehand so I could decide whether to take said toll roads (and incur the extra charges) or stick to the surface streets. Instead of answering my question he pointed to the bill and told me that I owed him more money. Refusing to yield, I kept asking him why he didn't tell me about the extra charge. To which he again pointed to the 1000 peso bill and told me that I owed him more money. Finally, after he realized that I wouldn't pay until he answered my question, he relented. He told me that he didn't tell me about the extra charge because he thought I knew about it. Laughing out of disbelief, I asked him how I could possibly know about it when I am from the United States. Oddly enough the driver could offer no explanation. By this time my dad came over and asked me what was going on. I explained everything and my dad said to just walk away and not pay. Taking his advice, I told the driver that I was not going to pay. I shut the passenger door and started walking toward the hotel entrance. The driver got out of the car and yelled something inaudible. Obviously my dad understood what he said because he told him that he had his number and was going to report him. Upon hearing this, the driver immediately got back into his car and drove off.
My parents, Cat, and I surmised that we probably did owe the driver the extra toll charge, but we were upset that he never told us. Instead, he assumed we already knew (or at least that is what he said). We also found it difficult to believe that the extra charge was 1000 pesos. Based on that number (about $2 for every 4-5 miles), freeway/tollway driving in Chile is one very expensive undertaking. And I thought the new tollways in and around Austin were pricey.

Now the point of this blog is not to complain about possibly crooked Santiago cabbies or the cost of driving in Chile. Rather, it is to mention a milestone. I argued completely in Spanish with a cab driver and we both knew exactly what the other person was saying. In other words, I understood his Spanish and he understood mine. Despite the unpleasant ending to the ride, I was very happy that I could even have the argument. If only all my conversations in Spanish were as clear.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

San Bernardino: The Hamptons of Paraguay

Most middle to upper middle class Paraguayan families that live in Asunción have a summer home in San Bernardino, a small, lakeside town a relatively short 40 minute drive from the city. The town is tiny and hardly anyone lives there year round. Instead, San Bernardino serves as a summer getaway. When the heat and humidity becomes unbearable in January and February, families pack their bags, temporarily close their Asunción homes, pile in the car, and escape to their summer homes in San Bernardino. After two months of lounging around on the beach, sipping drinks poolside, late night parties, and relaxing the summer away, families pack their bags, temporarily close their San Bernardino homes, pile in the car, and return to the city for another 10 months of work or school.

A few Sundays ago Cat and I visited this vacation town. We were invited to spend the day there with one of my students, Mati, and her family. Naturally, an asado (Paraguayan barbeque) was the meal of choice. And, true to Paraguayan form, the family was incredibly welcoming, generous, and treated us as if we were long lost friends.

It started with Mati and her husband driving 25 minutes back into Asunción to pick us up after they had spent the entire morning at their youngest daughter’s golf tournament. On the way to San Bernardino, we stopped twice on the side of the road to buy strawberries and chipa just so we would have a snack while waiting for the asado. Once we arrived at the house the grandmother talked us up and down, asking questions, telling stories, sharing her ‘love’ for the military government that she grew up with, regaling us with her crazy protesting and subversive, anti-establishment days, explaining the joys of orgasms, and predicting when Cat and I were going to have children. She even predicted the exact day we would conceive (this September 21st). In other words, she was the crazy, old, loving, still young at heart grandmother that exists in all families. As she told us story after story, her husband just smiled and shook his head slightly. It was quiet acknowledgement that he’s heard it all before and, yes, his wife is crazy but he still loves her dearly.

After eating, Mati and her husband drove us all around town showing us the historic San Bernardino hotel (where Cat and I are supposed to conceive), the club on the lakefront, the downtown area, and the small ice cream stand where we stopped for a delicious strawberry smoothie-type creation. On the way back to Asunción we stopped at a mall to pick up yet more food. Cat and I mentioned that we never tried a quintessentially Paraguayan food, whose Guarani name escapes me at the moment. It was flat and thin, made of cheese and bread, and served hot. Despite being sufficiently full and not hungry at all from a day of non-stop eating, it was delicious. Of course Cat and I ate every last bite.

A day complete with wonderful company, tasty food, intriguing stories, and great memoires—what more could Cat and I ask for?