Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Asuncion - part 3: Buses

I'm sipping my lemon ginger honey tea which is delicious and which I will be happy to drink a whole pot of tonight. I get the lemons from the neighbor's tree which mostly grows over my back yard, the honey I bought in Nueva Germania from a woman whose brother and step-father had been out hunting for it in the woods, and the ginger root I buy at a little asian goods store in Mercado 4 in Asuncion on the street where the Chinese restaurants and the Paraguayan herb vendors are. You can't buy ginger from one of the Paraguayan vendors, though they have a root called yerba brava that looks and smells similar.

I was in Asuncion last week for "Mid-Service Training" which involved "training" and informational sessions and doctors and dentists check-ups. It was the first time our whole training group has been together since last September. It was great to see everyone, now so comfortable and confident as Peace Corps Volunteers, happy in thier sites, doing great work. When we all met each other 15 months ago we were nervous, optimistic, and so completely in the dark about life in Paraguay. The change since then is enormous, and we tend not to even be very aware of it ourselves.

I spent extra time in the city to be able to see my girlfriend, who works as a cook in a business which is run out of a large home. She lives and of course eats there too, which is great because she is able to save so much of her wages to send home to her family.

When I am in the city I do not stay in, but rather travel repeatedly around the big triangle formed by the hotels, restaurants, and bars of old town, the PC office in the new part of town, and mercado 4 and the bus terminal which are in the beating heart of the city and where there are some of the better asian restaurants. This nearly daily journey I made almost exclusively by bus, which is as good a symbol for chaotic, uncomfortable, and vivacious Asuncion as I can think of.

These buses run circular routes through the city and then out into the suburbs, like comets which come in close to the sun and then slingshot out into the blackness for a few hundred years. The fare is 2,300 guaranies (like 70 cents) which is great if you just need one bus but adds up quickly if you have to change or get on the wrong bus; there are no free transfers. The buslines are private companies that are required to charge the same fare to be able to operate in the city limits. The line numbers sometimes include decimals and letters. I can't ever remember if it is the 16.8 or the 18.2 that I need to take to get from the terminal to the office and since I'm only in town every so often I tend to learn the line numbers only temporarily. The best way is just to look at the landmarks that are scrawled on signs displayed in the front window. As you learn the way traffic flows around town you become able to make educated guesses about which way a bus will be going based on the displayed landmarks. These are vague descripions at best though and more times than I can count I have been conveyed all about the city or god-knows-where in the suburbs before getting up the ganas to ask someone if I'm on the right bus. I now make it a personal rule to always ask the driver when I get on.

The buses are the loudest, jerkiest, hardest metal glass wood (!) and plastic boxes that you will ever willingly put yourself in, outside of a theme park. The engines roar, the bus lurches as the driver changes gears, black smoke billows as you climb hills, and so many people of every walk of life subir and bajar as you (hopefully) approach your destination. Many of the times when I am most struck by the unlikliness of my being here have been on the buses. Sitting alone or standing crushed together with 50 people you don't know, one has a moment to think about an experience that is at once so intense and bizzare and uncomfortable and at the same time so normal and (kind of) beautiful.

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