Bordering Lake Ypacarai, Paraguay’s largest body water, the quirky town of Aregua is a 30 kilometer bus ride away from the capital. I would have said a “short” ride away but that really depends on the traffic! We’ve traveled there several times since moving to Asuncion by bus, hitching rides with friends and, most recently, in our newly purchased car. The little town boasts several quaint attractions such a church, a small, lakeside-beach, a railroad museum, an annual strawberry festival, a nunnery and (rarely open) art galleries. It’s a worthwhile day-trip because there is a little bit of something for everyone and, unlike most of Paraguay, the town is actually geared for day-trippers and local tourists. The town has no world-class attractions but it offers some welcome, small-town relief for city-dwellers from Asuncion like us.
For me personally, Aregua’s primary attraction is the plethora of utterly random ceramic figurines, fountains, piggy banks and garden gnomes that inhabit the stalls and shops that line the main street. I’ve long been a fan of browsing (but generally not buying) unusual, kitschy collectibles and I’ve seen my share of unpredictable junk in markets around the world. But Aregua’s dusty stalls take the gold medal for the category of “Stimulation of Jon’s Joy-in-Random Junk.”
Fancy a collection cheap ceramic minions? Aregua has them by the truck-load. A yard-full of Disney princesses? Freely available. Searching for nativity scenes? Dozens of varieties. Hello Kitty figurines? Uh huh. Tie-wearing koalas and frogs dolled up with lipstick? In abundance. A walrus balancing a football on is its head? Of course. A bewildering variety of African-themed vases? Check. Dwarves flashing their man-junk? Unfortunately, yes. If you can imagine it, Aregua has it cheap ceramic!
One of the beauties of sifting through Aregua’s pottery is the fluidity with which they change. Each time I return, I see inventive takes on characters from new films and TV shows (although a conspicuous lack of Star Wars characters…. WHY!?!), original variations on popular zoo-animals, chunky imitations of rural farmers…the list goes on and on and I love it!
Although there are bigger, better and more exciting places to visit in Paraguay, we’ll continue to return to Aregua every six months or so to explore the kitschy ceramics on display. It is a quirky, side of Paraguay that I ‘ll always enjoy, even if I never actually purchase those garden gnomes!
My father is a pilot. As a result, I have very fond early memories of airplanes. My first major journey was not in a car; it was in a bush plane. I grew up in cockpits and, until September 11th changed all of the rules of airline security, regularly accompanied my pilot-hero Dad to work. I was raised a seasoned air traveler and, as a child, I remember giggling at adults who gripped their armrests with white knuckles when the plane would hit air pockets of turbulence. I felt so much braver than any of them and would mischievously lift my hands and peek over at them to show off how courageous I was.
One of my most poignant early memories of air travel was when I was around seven years old travelling from Blanc Sablan, Labrador to Deer Lake, Newfoundland. I was sitting in the emergency exit seat and I remember looking at the handle and suddenly realizing that I could pull it, theoretically opening my seat to the rush of air outside. I wondered what would happen if I dared to open it. Would it be possible to simply tug on the handle and jump out? My curiosity piqued, I peered out the window at the choppy grey ocean far below. Then we hit some major turbulence…and I clung tightly to my armrest for the rest of the flight.
I’ve grown up a lot and taken on far lengthier airplane challenges than the short hop from Labrador to Newfoundland, but the desire to jump out of an airplane stuck with me. I’ve finally let my curiosity get the better of me - I went skydiving last weekend!
My interest was initially sparked by one of my twelfth-grade students who is training to become certified to jump independently. Before he mentioned his parachute-course and showed me some of his videos, I hadn’t even realized that the sport existed here in Asunción. The conservative, tranquilo-pa’ attitude of locals didn’t really seem conducive to diving headlong out of a moving airplane at 15,000 feet! After talking to my student and a few Google searches, I learned that a skydiving school in sleepy Paraguay does exist and, along with a few other ASA teachers, I made concrete plans to test my childhood inquisitiveness.
The day I was originally scheduled to go was cloudy and windy at first, the control tower didn’t authorize any flights until late in the morning. As Briana, Becky and myself pulled into the army airport and stumbled through the Spanish pronunciation of paracaidismo, I was jittery and nervous. It had been a while since my stomach had performed gymnastics so elaborately! We arrived, signed waivers, sat and waited. And waited some more. And waited some more. Eventually, after around five hours of decreasing jitteriness, Briana suited up, crawled into the plane and headed into the sky. Together on the ground, Becky and I watched the plane circle around and we saw some tiny specks tumble out. We watched the spots fall and colourful parachutes flower against the pale evening sky. As the chute opened, we could hear enthusiastic screams of excitement as Briana’s chute spiraled and swooped to the ground. It was out turn next! My stomach did a few somersaults. Briana landed in a frenzy of smiles…and then we learned that the control tower had shut down the next flight because sunset was coming too soon. Talk about an anti-climactic! We were all a bit disappointed but we traveled home with promises to return and finish the job.
Fast-forward four or five weeks.
Last Sunday, after another few hours of sitting in plastic lawn chairs in a scruffy hanger waiting for our turn, Becky and I finally crammed into our plane with four other skydivers. The aircraft was so small that we all had to shift our weight towards the wheel just to get off the ground! As I sat in a grown man’s lap, strapped tightly into an wedgie-inducing harness, I stared out the window at the shrinking runway below. It was finally happening! I could barely hear myself talk over the roar of the engine, the howling wind and thumping reggae that blasted on fuzzy speakers. Conspicuously lacking was the fear and stomach-gymnastics I had experienced the time I showed up at the airport a month before but hadn’t jumped. I was cool calm and (mostly) collected. As we gained height by corkscrewing into the clouds around Asunción, I had two series of dominant thoughts that I remember. I’ve included the basic transcript of what flew through my head in the moments before the jump below:
And then I tumbled out of the airplane.
It was over quickly but had a blast. I still swear that, although it was a rush, I didn’t even feel a hint of fear. This surprised me and as I fell, I thought, “in some ways, a roller-coaster is scarier than this!” Then I experienced true terror. It finally arrived when the parachute opened and my huevos (Spanish term for nuts, balls, bullocks, etc.) were abruptly crushed by my harness. I suddenly found myself fearing for my future offspring, or possible lack thereof.
I landed with a wild head of hair and pumped full of adrenaline energized and wanting to jump a second time. I took a long afternoon nap instead.
A week later, I am super-stoked that I finally satisfied my childhood curiosity of what it feels like to jump out of a plane. It was worth every penny and every second of time I spent sprawled in the Paraguayan Army hanger waiting for a plane to show up. I can now state with authority that skydiving is awesome; it’s something everyone should experience at least once in their lifetime.
I’m already dreaming up another jump in the back of my mind.
Dad. My father-pilot-hero, I publicly challenge you, with your close friends and family members who are reading this as witnesses, to come visit Paraguay. You have been flying planes for your whole life…I think you’ve even almost crashed a few! Your time has come to jump out of one.
With that glove openly hurled at my father’s feet, chao chao!
I wrote this piece about two months after the event in question happened and I decided not to share it at the time. This still stands out as one of the sharpest memories I have of Bangladesh. While other things have started to go hazy, this one hasn't and I'm not sure if it ever will.
In late April the humidity that had building for weeks finally released a torrential downpour marking the beginning the mango rains. I was drenched with a fetid mixture of sweat, rainwater and mud sprayed by passing cars as I pedaled home on my bicycle. Oblivious to the conditions as I weaved through the traffic, I reviewed the animated class-discussion my grade nine students had earlier that day as we read Night, a powerful Holocaust memoir, by Elie Wiesel. The author’s assertion that to “remain silent and indifferent is the greatest sin of all” had provoked a lively conversation about the inequality ingrained in Bangladeshi society and the importance of our personal responsibility to intervene and actively seek justice for those in need. I was stoked to hear my students coming to these conclusions on their own and began mentally scripting some questions to flesh out these ideas a bit more the next day.
A particularly loud chorus of bellowing car horns interrupted my idealistic teacher-thoughts and I slowed as I approached a crossroads that seemed to be the source of a major traffic jam. As I slowly maneuvered my bicycle between grumbling cars and snarling CNGs, I soon stumbled across the cause of the disruption.
A rickshaw wallah had, apparently, nicked a policeman’s leg with his wheel and was suffering the consequences. He was on his back. His arms wriggling in an unsuccessful attempt to shield his bloody face from a relentless torrent of angry blows. He writhed in the muck as a lone policemen clothed in moldy-green viciously stomped on his torso and beat his contorted face with a weathered, well-used baton.
Any cries that escaped the wallah’s swollen lips were swallowed by the relentless drumming of the rain.
Passengers on the surrounding rickshaws looked on dispassionately, observing the events through a veil of merciless rainwater. All wore an expression of indifference, even boredom, on their faces. A second traffic policeman peeked apathetically out from under the comfort of his umbrella; his black eyes reflecting the cold car lights that illuminated the pitiful spectacle for all to witness.
I silently watched the beating for what was probably a whole minute; it seemed to last forever. I said nothing. I did nothing.
Suddenly, the officer stopped and, giving the wallah one final kick, left him curled up like a cockroach crushed on the side of the road. I thought he was dead.
After a few excruciating seconds, the wallah slowly rolled over and, panting heavily, pushed himself off of the filthy street. Through sheets of rain, I could make out his smashed nose, purple, swollen face and toothless mouth filled with pulpy, foaming blood that dribbled all the way down his shirt onto the ground. For a split second, I stared into the hollow eyes that had meekly accepted the beating. With quivering hands, he re-tied his blood-soaked lungi, hobbled back to his rickshaw and pedaled painfully away.
Car-engines that had been extinguished to conserve fuel roared to life and rickshaws rang their bells and jostled for position as the incident was quickly forgotten and the traffic flow returned to normal. The policeman’s whistle pierced the air and he waved me onward. I was whisked straight through the crimson smear in the muddy road by a relentless flow of cars, CNGs and rickshaws.
As I pedaled my muddy tires passed through the puddle of red sludge and teeth, I was already trying to justify my inaction. “It would have been dangerous” I thought desperately to myself. “I would have gotten myself into trouble. This happens all the time so there would be no point in trying to stop it. I can’t speak fluent Bangla. They wouldn’t have understood me…”
My excuses felt, and still feel, so inadequate. The falling rain masked the hot tears that streamed down my face.
I am a hammer-wielding demi-god. At least if you ask some my students.
See, over the past two years of living in Paraguay, I’ve volunteered a few times alongside my students with TECHO, an organization similar to Habitat for Humanity. TECHO funds and constructs temporary emergency housing for thousands of families across Latin America who living in grinding poverty, particularly those living in disaster-prone areas. Many of my students are passionate about fundraising, purchasing materials and then travelling to the campo to work alongside families building solid, weather-resistant housing. Let’s just say my students desperately that passion; it almost makes up for their utter and complete lack of competence!
Few of my students have worked a day of hard labour in their lives; they are from an elite class that simply hires others to do that sort of work for them. They do not understand how to operate sophisticated machinery like a handsaw. The intricacies of the hammer and nail presents an impossible technological challenge for many. Watching one of my female students attempt to pin a few screws into a wall with a screwdriver sent me into the throes of gut-shatteringly uncontrollable laughter.
I, on the other hand, have had the opportunity to learn how to use some of these advanced tools.
Now, this sounds ironic to those of you who know how embarrassingly “unhandy” I actually am. Despite working a construction-labour job during university and pitching in with my father’s ambitious renovation and house-building plans from time to time, I am far from a jack of all trades. In fact, I have frequently (and rather accurately) been accused of being a side-burned Neanderthal by my loving wife when I attempt to mount a TV, piece together some furniture or fix a showerhead. She often takes over in frustration after watching me fumble clumsily around and completes the task in short order. Basically, I’m not a problem solver and fixing or building things is NOT my strong-suit.
Last weekend I travelled about 20 kilometers from the city for the most recent set of TECHO housing constructions. I worked with a group of eight motivated high school students who I teach to build a house for a mother and her three young kids. None of them spoke Spanish or English so I couldn’t really communicate with them other to than to grin stupidly in response to the kid’s silly jokes in Guarani. The walls of the house come prefabricated so tacking them in place, fastening the rafters, installing the door and pinning sheet metal on the roof was pretty much all that was required. Not rocket science; it’s stuff that even I can accomplish with relative ease, precisely because it requires no skill!
Here’s where my “legend” status comes in. As a dude who basically types away at a computer and grades papers all day in my classroom, it’s nice to get outside, swing a hammer around, take a skill-saw to some wood and generally feel like a bit of a man again. I thoroughly enjoyed it and taught my students how to hold a hammer and not smash their thumbs while demonstrating my ability to actually hit the nail on the head (almost) every time. This is, apparently, highly impressive. Word of my talent quickly spread and soon, sightseers began to arrive at our site to observe my hammer prowess. Seriously. My students gawked and fawned over the fact that I could nail a whole wall in place faster than the other eight students could tack a single nail into the floor. Small groups trailed in from other build-sites to observe my “insane super-powers.” My students who volunteer with TECHO are already bickering about who gets to have me on their squad next time!
Situational irony aside, I enjoyed myself and learned a few new words of Guarani in the process. I’m already looking forward to the next series of constructions so I can continue to awe my students with my handyman expertise!