Paraguay, Hijo de hombre

Paraguay River

Paraguay River

I long for Paraguay as much as I long to breathe. The existence of that country is one more thing that is there in my mind, perhaps an ambition, perhaps a place, perhaps the representation of a dream or a representation of the concept itself of simply wanting, perhaps simply the sound of a word.

It exists for me in a few different ways, some of which are more pleasant than others, and some of which ironically don’t exist for the locals themselves. It is the tropical flatlands with colourful flowers and paths of red earth that spread out into windswept plains that go far off into nowhere. Paraguay is heat, stifling summer heat. It is the rivers, the forest, the thousand of species of animals with Guaraní names, the lack of coastline. Paraguay is the nation that was once complete jungle. Paraguay is the people drinking local tea outside the front of their houses on a Sunday afternoon, born in a forgotten corner of the world who exist purely for themselves, forgetting the wider world that forgot them.

It is the name. No one is even completely sure where the word Paraguay came from. It is probably from the indigenous Guaraní language and probably means “The water that flows to the sea,” the country named after the massive Paraguay River that does what I’ve just suggested. Or it could be named after local birds, or a tribe of local pirates.

Paraguay is many things, my mind separating the promise of magic from the land of incessant difficulties. Paraguay is a people born in an economic prison without exit signs. It is without money from the legal sector yet a country that is one long black market whose profits are siphoned off by crooks. It is a tranquil country that snoozes yet has terrible problems with petty crime. The night I got there I was told not to go into town until the next morning. “That’s Paraguay,” the reservedly personable landlord shrugged.

The Chaco Desert, scene of the War of Thirst

The Chaco Desert, scene of the War of Thirst

Paraguay is quintessentially South American. It does not have Argentina’s tourists, or Colombia’s salsa dancing, or Bolivia’s Andes Mountains, or Peru’s connection to the Incas. It is sneered at by Brazilians in their hauteur who go there for cheap shopping. But it is authentic. Visitors describe the reserve of the locals, the quiet confederacy of purpose, the vague sadness and quietness that drifts, the straightforwardness of the locals who apparently have not yet discovered sarcasm and despite the arrival of 21st Century amenities, the internet, abundant mobile phones, have not quite discovered the modern world in its entirety.

The country was almost crushed by Brazil and Argentina in the 1870s. It was not wiped off the map but ceased to exist as a viable, self-sufficient nation, and the mood never really recovered. Then they shot themselves in the foot a few more times.

I was there for one day, on July 15, 2006, one week after the soccer World Cup had finished, when Zinedine Zidane had planted his head and the Italian team had put in all of its penalty kicks. My friend and I knew no one there and found the place impenetrable, too much of a mystery to crack in a few hours without someone holding my hand, which I didn’t have. I bought a famous Paraguayan book there called Hijo de hombre for 25,000 Guaraníes, which I simply paid for with a $us5 note. It’s next to me right now, one of my rarest possessions. Inside the story the country unfolds…

In the small town of Sapucai in the flowery countryside where people speak Guaraní to each other instead of Spanish, people without land or power struggle to rise up and are always defeated by the Paraguayan army. Memories of the town go back to a few years after Halley’s Comet flew past Paraguay, to 1912, when hope was denied and their best men were killed. Those without anything try again, and again lose. Army conscripts ask themselves: we’re one of them, it kills me to be ordered to fire on these peasants, I’ve become just like the guy who killed my Dad. Then a four-year war against one of Paraguay’s neighbouring countries unites the nation: The political prisoners are all freed and the focus shifts outward, to the Chaco Desert (this happened in the 1930s), the theatre of war where more soldiers die gruesomely of thirst than by the bullet. The war ‘won’, the soldiers, some who have had arms and legs amputated and some who will not get over the trauma of war return home to their farms. The old shouts and the graffiti of the disenfranchised begging for land, bread and freedom will once again start up. The narrator says: something has to change. A people can’t continue to be oppressed indefinitely. Man is like a river, who is born and dies in other rivers. A bad river is one that dies in an estuary, because stagnant water is contaminated, poisonous. It engenders miasmas of a malign fever, of a furious madness. Then, to cure the sick man or to pacify him, he has to be killed. And the ground of this country is already busy enough under the earth. The book is filled with an edgy, uncertain mood that ends like this:

“There must be some way out in this monstrous countersense of man crucified by man. Because if it’s the opposite it would be the case to think that the human race is cursed forever, that this is hell and that we cannot hope for salvation.

There must be a way out, because if it’s the opposite…”

I love Bolivia tenderly. But I’m in love with Paraguay.

Stream of consciousness

The months fly by, and every time I check it is a different one, but I’ve lost my dread that they pass, that time goes by. It simply happens. I chose emotional over political a while ago and held fast to it, but every so often I reacted badly to people who choose the opposite. I think about hurt, but don’t wonder if anyone else feels it too because it’s outside my ability to see things through other people’s eyes. I wonder if it’s more important to be kind to people or to get shit done, because in reality there are very few people who do either thing, so they are probably as important as each other and no more. I would like to be the former and sometimes to often I am.

I believe that I am being consumed by negativity. I no longer think about what things mean but simply react to them with anger. I drop angry comments without stopping to ask myself the consequences and occasionally I am too fragile to verify the result of them. I have a weird relationship with the human race, in which I often feel oddly tender moments of love for the individual that I’m speaking to but when I think of people in an abstract sense I feel afraid of them and disgusted by them. I question whether I’ll have a close relationship with anyone now that I’m no longer early-twenties stock, because we stop meeting people and getting to know them for the sake of it after a certain age: once we are above twenty-whatever we need to know them for a reason. Once I get married it will no longer be legit to have female companions, but it doesn’t matter a whole lot to me. I might get married in the next two years; I know a girl with whom I would like to shut out the world and just be with her, lately I’ve become more convinced, and for the moment I trust that she would like me around. She says so.

The phone just rang right now and I reacted with irritation, like I do with every minor and unexpected interruption. When did I become this way? When did it reach the stage where anger and irritation is my automatic reaction? And was I afraid? I don’t know, did everything relate to that, that thing from the past? I drive my car, and her. I eat my lunch, and there she is, always there in my mind. But new things should be entering my head, I should let them if they don’t, because once a person stops being open to newness he is finished, absolutely. And yet three point something years later, there she still was. I never really got over the sadness of that sudden about-face rejection from her, the anger that it later developed into. And after her there were not many pieces left to pick up so that I could try again, because I had given away my most passionate love and I couldn’t find much more to give to anyone else. But there were different kinds of love, and some: while not as self-consuming, weren’t lesser but simply different.

The tennis is here, the tennis will go. Today’s ephemeral time-killers will become tomorrow’s why-did-I-care-about-that-little-piece-of-unimportant-trivia. I started work at a restaurant two and a half months ago, and it keeps me level but I achieve nothing with my days, for the moment and perhaps forever. I want money but I don’t want to own anything, but even more confusingly I don’t want to suffer from the same afflictions that the others who own nothing suffer. Sometimes it is wilful simplicity and sometimes it is genuine simplicity, and sometimes it is wilful ignorance and sometimes it is just lazy ignorance. I might be broken but I suspect that everyone is broken in some way; if you do not fulfil certain dreams it hurts, and too much. I have time but not so much; perhaps that’s the best way to be. People say that we need a sense of urgency to achieve something today. I don’t care if what they have to say is new as long as how they say it is new. I feel pity and contempt at the same time, and at the same time love and fear and is that hatred, all at once? Or is hatred too strong a word for something so capricious?

Going…

It’s been a disaster, there’s no sugarcoating that fact. But in a way, the Bush years were more a failure of the system than of the man himself. A person of his intellect should never have been able to climb that high and attain the presidency in the first place. If you strap a monkey behind a steering wheel and the car crashes, it’s not exactly the monkey’s fault. It’s the fault of the person who straps the monkey in. It’s the fault of the 151 million Americans who wanted him in (149 million of 300 in 2000, lol).

Joking aside, he probably did win the 2000 election. But why Florida couldn’t have been counted twenty times, a hundred times until we were certain of its numbers, goes beyond logic. Stopping the recount via the now ultra-political supreme court (need I remind anyone that the whole point of having a supreme court is for it to be above the partisan bullshit) was a shifty way to get in and set the tone for his entire presidency. In addition, the famous faulty ballot paper caused many Florida Gore-ites to accidentally vote for a fascist asshole named Pat Buchanan, depriving Gore of the handful of votes that would have given him victory. (Still, Gore was a loser, it should never have been that close in the first place.)

When Bush came in, however doubtful the 2000 election was, he had a shitload of money bequeathed from the Clinton years and he blew it all on Iraq and tax cuts for the rich, buying himself a second term in power at the expense of America’s financial future. Now there’s a gaping canyon where America’s money used to be, which will consequently slowly erode their power. That is probably what makes him a bad president in cold-blooded terms, and not Iraq per se. Controlling a nation should always be about strategy and not emotion, and Bush made it about emotion. This presidency based recklessness, on hunches and gut-feeling and lack of reflection took the whole country down the gurgler. In this day and age it’s astonishing that a government – Messrs Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice and Co., take a bow – could still think in such closed-minded terms. That way of thinking doesn’t work, and yet things will never change, they will always have their supporters despite all evidence to the contrary, however much of a disaster this decade has been under them.

September 11 probably killed any chance Bush had of setting his own agenda. The Taliban had sheltered Osama, Osama had pulled the strings on September 11, therefore the Taliban had to be taken out. That shit just had to be done; one of the two wars was inevitable. (It’s like how right before Ukraine ditched capital punishment they did in a serial killer who roamed the countryside terrorising the villages, and their explanation was: “Someone like him just has to go.” I’m against capital punishment but perversely I agreed with their assessment. What can I say, I’m a ball of contradictions.)

Iraq killed him and killed everything. I believe the whole Iraq thing was not even to do with oil but simply Bush acting on a grudge against Saddam and answering the old critics who said his father had not finished the job. From a strategic point of view Saddam was a counterbalance in the Middle East against hardline Islamism and now there is no counterweight; Iraq will be hardline and an ally of Iran within ten years (assuming a U.S. pullout). The whole thing was just stupid even before mentioning lives lost and all the humanitarian concerns, and the money spent.

Katrina was bad. Morally bad, not just a relative mistake like most governmental errors of judgement. Katrina showed that America has an underclass that not even the government gives a shit about.

I don’t think the financial crisis was strictly his fault like Iraq was. It was the product of decades of Republican policy of pandering to the rich. A house of cards had to fall sometime. When a badly-hung Christmas tree ornament falls by itself, it’s natural to blame the person standing the closest to the tree. Don’t get me wrong, Bush and his deregulation and pandering to the moneyed classes and companies contributed to all this; he was a part of it, but not nearly all of it.

The vox pop verdict is basically unanimous. Lizeth the left-wing Bolivian called Bush the anti-Christ. My right(ish)-wing accountant mate here says his stock-markety Dad called Bush a disaster and blames him for everything. I asked my mate: isn’t the cabinet supposed to mitigate against Bush’s idiocy? He answered, “No, he actually does make all the decisions. He’s a lower IQ.” Their actions are those of a government with a lower IQ.

I do not think he is the anti-Christ. I think he was misguided rather than a bad person. On a personal level I find something very likeable about Bush. He’s someone I could have a beer with. Even Barack Obama mentioned in his book that Bush has a straightforward manner that helped him win two elections, the kind of guy who would make for good company so long as the conversation revolved around sports and the kids (that last bit is a direct quote). But he just didn’t know what he was doing as prez, and evidently the puppeteer Cheney didn’t know what he was doing either. And, as one guy said in the lead-up to election 2008: “If I want to have a beer with someone, that’s what my friends are for. I don’t want to have a beer with my president.” The implication being that the prez should be an egghead, however little he has in common with the rest of us.

At least Bush gave a lot of aid to Africa and put a lot of dough into countering AIDS and malaria and all those diseases that we no longer even sneeze at in the first-world (pun perhaps intended). That’s what he did better than the other prezes.

And, at least countries with money and power have the ability to fix themselves (although I don’t think America will ever be as all-encompassing as it was in the 90s again). And no country has more money and power than America. The empire will stagger on.

Santa Claus’ Tribulation, part 3 of 3

The end was approaching. The self-sufficient community that had been set up in times past was decimated. The only ones left were the old workers, the ‘elves’. Even they had begun the meticulous process of dying off. Morale at the workshop being what it was, Santa could only be grateful that – contrary to popular opinion – magic did not need the continuing belief of its beneficiaries to impose itself. The continued flight of the aged, worn-out reindeer was witness to this indisputable fact.

December 24th had arrived. Mrs Claus was bedridden, and in fact had not been seen on her own two feet for several months. Certainly she was very old, with a complexion that indicated that blood no longer pulsed through her cheeks as readily as it once had. Santa didn’t dare ask himself if she was on the verge of death. Would he be on his way soon too? The answer would have surely overwhelmed him and affected the arrival of yet another Merry Christmas™. Deliveries were being made with threads of will that could not be snapped, because if they were broken even once, then at his age Santa knew that the mission would be finished.

Santa commanded the reindeer off with a jerk of his wrists but without a word. He could hear the faint creaking of the worn, nostalgic sleigh as it glided far above white, moonlit hills. Had he ever felt this tired? That night he didn’t respond to the occasional dazzling bursts of joy that children gave him upon recognition.

He was struggling back up a chimney when he noticed an absence up above him. At first he was worried that the reindeer had run away and left him adrift. The stamping, braying and jingling sounds that reached his ears eased his anxiety and yet at the same time restored his puzzlement. He could not understand what it was by looking around him. It was only further along the track – several countries having been passed along the way – that he focused on this absence and saw it for what it was. His wife’s birth star, the one that he had always seen with his heart and mind if not with his eyes, had vanished. Santa struggled to comprehend this as he sat in the sleigh that was comfortably perched on the roof of a two-storey house. Amid the impatience of the reindeer, who Santa was ready to release from their harnesses and shoo away for the state he was in… amid the reindeer, he put his head down against the wooden frame of his sleigh, closed his eyes and began to tremble.

When he woke from his somnolent, solemn pose, it was already morning. The ensemble of sleigh, bells, harnesses, reindeer and fat man in red was still up there on the snow-covered rooftop. Santa was about to tell his reindeer in short order to head back to the North Pole for what might have been their last ever trip. Was the fate of the ailing Mrs Claus symmetrical to that of the fallen birth star? Before he found out, however, a glance at his still bulging sack caused him to pause. What would these undelivered toys do but clutter up the workshop and cause him to trip over them throughout his remaining days? They had to be delivered, if only to satisfy Santa’s desire for  “a place for everything and everything in its place.”

The questions flowed as he continued with the undertaking. Once again he began to feel sentimental and nostalgic about the gratitude accorded to him. For the first time he was witnessing this gratitude first-hand, because this time he could talk to those recipients of his gifts who had risen with the sunlight that streamed through their windows. The thank-yous he received that day erased, with the help of the benign selection of memory, the bitterness of the previous years. When the noses of the reindeer were pointing towards the North Pole once more, Santa was overwhelmed by the certainty that he could not yet bring the mission to an end.

And so people would often tell each other about the occasion that they saw Santa Claus make his deliveries not in shadows but by the mid-morning light of the sun.

 The End

Santa Claus’ Tribulation, part 2 of 3

The years were passing, and yet they still found Santa delivering toys long after many of the eight year-olds had stopped believing in him. The invisible leg irons that age had coupled to his ankles were also witness to his beard turning white and the steady increase of his weight. His wife, who looked at him from time to time with affection though not with desire for many years, asked him why he kept that beard when it always scratched her face when she gave him a kiss.

“You don’t understand,” he replied. “My image means something to people.”

“What about your image with me?” she asked. “What about my image with people? Sometimes images are allowed to be false.”

But despite her absolute commitment to her husband’s never-ending but increasingly irrelevant mission, neither she nor anyone else could successfully mend the fraying at the edges of this tapestry. The older generation of workers had lived lives whose loyalty to Santa had never come into question. Their children, however, who had married each other and who wondered if there were alternatives to pasty skin, to the necessity of wrapping headscarves around one’s mouth, to the insularity of the North Pole – had begun the long and drawn-out but steady stream of desertion. The Japanese technicians, who had always made the workshop a more varied place every November and December – if not quite any livelier – suddenly stopped appearing, for the companies with which these toilers had built themselves up professionally would no longer consent to giving their workers away for two months for what they saw as a dying enterprise.

The toy production continued. The non-techno genius workers had stayed with the man who had rescued them from the listlessness of their former homes. They were there beyond the point where their hair had turned white and the rare visitors to the famous workshop wondered if these workers really were ageless, for the peers they had left behind many years ago were surely dead by then. Their ears had not only reddened in response to the icy pin-pricks of northern living but had become pointed as a way of fighting back against nature.

By this time, Santa was longing for a year’s break – a holiday from the holiday period, so to speak. It did little for him to hear that he had a dream vocation, that few other people were compelled to only work for one night per year. Santa gave the finger to such suggestions. Each year he had had a myriad of problems to solve, which he had always preferred to deal with personally and thus carried with him weight that was heavier than either his paunch or his peddler’s sack o’ toys.

For a moment he drifted back in reverie of days gone by and, in searching for someone he could talk to who might understand his feelings of a lost yesteryear, he found himself in the reindeer’s stable. They had been willing servants of his original dream for long decades, and he looked at them with affection. Dasher was more circumspect with his leg speed now; Dancer had lost her rhythm; Prancer no longer had a spring in his step; Vixen had lost her allure; Comet was no longer a bright flash across the night sky; Cupid’s love affair with the mission had gone wrong; Blitzen no longer had the strength and will to rival an army as he had once had. Meanwhile, Donner had pulled up lame so Santa had put him out to pasture on the steppes of central Asia.

Knowing what such an event would do to the morale of the children of the world, Santa did not take his long dreamed of year off. But the sight in the night sky of Santa’s magical sleigh (as it occasionally appeared to four- and five-year olds) was an increasingly ragged one. The silhouette no longer had sharp edges if it appeared in its classic pose pulling out into the foreground of a low rising full moon; and the image no longer glowed bright white if flying low in front of the shadows of a city skyline. He found that passers-by could no longer distinguish him from the assorted Santas in the department stores. Or perhaps there was something that did mark him apart: the absence of jolly ho ho hos. One day he heard an older child behind him mention to his friend that Santa was there on the corner, and the other responded that if Santa really did exist then he surely wouldn’t have the shadows in his heart that this fellow did. Santa turned to look at them with tired, sad eyes.

“Merry Christmas,” he sighed.

Santa Claus’ Tribulation, part 1 of 3

(The real story of Santa Claus. Santa has feelings too, he goes through angst just like the rest of us…)

 

Santa Claus had been delivering toys from what seemed like time immemorial. He had first had the impression that there was something vaguely special about Christmas when he was a younger man who didn’t yet need to shave every day. At the time, he was in the process of going to university on a part-time basis studying commerce, looking at the girls’ legs when the short skirts came out in the summertime and meanwhile confirming his suspicions that there truly was nothing more to life than work, sex, ice-cream, family and death. But he was struck by the fact that at the end of each calendar year strangers would feed each other lines of goodwill as they crossed each other in the streets and that, even more incredibly, some of those people were actually being sincere.

This spirit of the December 20-somethings affected Santa, whose German grandmother had emigrated to America in a fit of spite after having divorced her husband of twenty-seven months. From this severed union had been left a son who would later experience a night of pure love, from which the long-lasting side effect was the birth of the child Santa Claus eight months later. Santa knew, more than the others, that as individuals the best that each person could do was to treat each other sort of well in order to make each person’s life just a little bit better and to make the world a slightly easier place in which to live. But there was precious little of this phenomenon to be witnessed, until the time of year when pine trees were cut down and brought into the unfamiliar environment of living-rooms with imitation fire-places. These trees would have a last hurrah in festive atmosphere until the day they died in darkened solitude. Around this time of year, people would make an effort to contact their relatives and think of others, which left Santa with a feeling of star-struck astoundedness.

Santa ditched his studies, his theories on economic activity withering like so many fir trees in disturbing Hans Christian Andersen ‘fairy-tales’. The season caused him to experience such uncharacteristic warmth in the heart region that he felt a compulsion to give another layer to his and others’ depth of feeling. He relocated himself to Europe for ease of movement, purchased a restored factory with his inheritance and began to make toys to give to children. Santa felt that, despite their innocent yet despairing occasional cruelty towards those who did not fit in, it was they who were the purest exponents of spontaneous friendliness and were thus the ones who best captured a Christmas spirit of sorts.

Santa was not prepared for what was to come next. The world-at-large, whose land mass was almost exclusively in the wayward providence of the governments of nation states, began to feel threatened by these acts of unregulated generosity. His own Germany, under pressure, expelled him and none other would accept his pleas of a new home. The only options left for this newly imposed wanderer were the tiniest of Pacific atolls, which were too small to fit his factory, or a life of devotion at either the north or south extremes of the Earth.

Choosing the north because of reasons of proximity, Santa continued to work in the same manner as he had before. He let his beard grow to protect against the cold as his legend began to grow. Others who had been shut off from the nation states asked for his help to start their lives again, which he gave, but like all disenfranchised throughout time one could only find the thankless tasks for them to do. So they did, but at least they were given a fruit mince pie to eat as a bonus on Christmas Eve – and a thank-you.

Santa married the daughter of one of these workers on her 22nd birthday. She was of Vietnamese origin and had lived various moments of her life in Indonesia and Australia, eventually having to leave that country after her father narrowly lost a bet with the Australian Prime Minister (“If you win, you become the new PM, but if I win you have to leave the country.”). Despite being considered ageless in later years, Santa was in fact not much older than his bride when the union occurred. As there were frequent sightings of Santa Claus in later years but none at all of the elusive Mrs. Claus, illustrators of children’s books would draw Mrs. Claus as a female equivalent of Santa: a homely old white woman with curly white hair. But though the reality was much different, Mrs. Claus was only slightly annoyed by the by the misrepresentation.

She was already accustomed to the ways of northern living, a culture that resembled that of the Scandinavian nations, only without any ports or markets as Santa’s generosity took care of many of his employees’ needs. They had money but no one knew what to do with any of it. Later, as the workers’ children grew older, arrangements were made for the building of a movie theatre and a place to dance when spirits were up in the eternal daylight of summer.

Santa’s calling was easier in the beginning. Children with no expectations of presents were ecstatic with what they were given, and in the early days a toy per child sufficed. Gifts for the most part were of the wooden or cloth variety. The augmenting of the children’s greed happened later, when Santa would have to try to find a way to fit racecar sets into his sack and counteract the fragility of Sega systems and computer screens. When these gift requests began to become the norm rather than the exception, Santa saw no recourse but to import a selection of the finest Japanese electricians to the North Pole every November/December period, turning his workshop into a madhouse. The on the whole short sizes of these Japanese techno-geniuses complemented the stout builds of some of Santa’s existing workers, many of whom were of Mestizo or Amerindian lineage who had left jobless, penniless and disenfranchised from wretched villages in the mountains of Bolivia. The natural heights and measurements of these workers would cause Western commentators, somewhat unfairly, to refer to them as ‘elves’.

Santa’s departure from his more idyllic and idealistic days of the beginning caused him to pursue a relentless self-examination, long before his critics were doing something similar. Had his successes been beginner’s luck? Suddenly disillusioned, he gave his attention to the fact that had often been at the edge of his consternation: he was giving more toys to children of richer families. He thought of the day – December 24th? – that the seed of this pattern of discernment had taken root. Rudolf, the reindeer of nervous disposition but whose godsend gift of a fluorescent nose was more than useful to someone who worked exclusively at night, was leading the way as he always had since his emergence three or four years beforehand. Rudolf was a reluctant hero, perhaps the inevitable consequence of the cruel (and jealous) insults his magical deformity always brought his way. That night he was not given a premonition. While Santa was delivering to one of the poorer, more dangerous areas, a bullet was fired from out of the darkness and Rudolf succumbed. He died, but not before waiting patiently for Santa so that he could give him a final despairing look from his large, sorrowful eyes.

That Santa had compelled Rudolf to participate in the annual escapades hardly assuaged his guilt. After that he took no chances. He would barely be inside each house for more than thirty seconds if he felt that the eight waiting specimens of reindeer were kicking their heels and jangling impatient bells in unsafe places. In addition, Santa could not quite dispel the nagging feeling that he was more generous to the wealthier recipients because of the richness of the food they always left out for him and the cosy façades of their plush living rooms.