Then I moved to Asuncion. Within a few weeks of arriving, the local newspapers filled with stories and features highlighting the tenth anniversary of the tragedy. I learned about the victim’s families’ search for justice and the ensuing court cases that led to the imprisonment of the supermarket’s owners, a security guard, the architect and some minor municipal officials. Protestors ten years later still felt cheated by the light sentences handed to those responsible. The papers were packed with photos and charts outlining the blaze itself and the derelict building as it now stands – a hulking, burnt-out testament to hundreds of lives gone up in smoke.
I’ve wanted to visit the ruins of Ycuá Boleños since I first drove past it during our first week in Paraguay. My penchant for wandering through abandoned places has been strong since my early teens (and has, coincidentally, gotten me in trouble on a few occasions) but, seeing as how visiting the wreckage of a horrifying disaster hardly qualifies as a romantic date with my beautiful wife, the adventure never materialized. Until this week.
Apart from several homeless natives and a small band of super-sketchy young men sporting haunting facial tattoos, I had the place to myself. It was odd how normal the place felt – no different than any other abandoned building I have visited in the past. I think I was expecting some sort of indefinable, creepy vibe but I didn’t find it there. As I wandered through the offices where the order came to close the doors, skirted past what used to be the food court where the fire began, explored the carniceria where dozens sought refuge in meat-refrigerators in a vain hope that the cooler temperatures would help them, I couldn’t help but think, “Why am I here?”
I started thinking. Occasionally, when I start thinking, I stop having fun. That was the case here. I left when I began honestly considering my motivations for going; I wasn’t paying my silent respects at a memorial. I felt more like a voyeur, peeking in on something I could never be a part of and never fully understand. I was reminded of visiting the cremation pyres in Kathmandu, Nepal and I remembered the unique smell of burning flesh. It was time to leave.
Although I’m glad I went, in a way, visiting the wreckage of the Ycuá Boleños supermarket made me supremely uncomfortable with myself. It will be filed away with other experiences I’ve had internationally where my thoughtless moral assumptions and motivations have been challenged unexpectedly. It is often these experiences that result in the most learning over time though…hopefully I’ve learned yet another indefinable lesson with this one.
 I openly admit that I became frightened when two of these (probably hardened gang-members) dudes started following me around the complex. I tried to avoid them and head for the exit but they cut me off and walked up to me. The following stream-of-consciousness monologue is an attempt to summarize my thoughts as they strolled towards me:
“Damnit Jon, what have you done? Why do you always put yourself in these dumb situations? You’ve never been robbed when Danielle is around…the problem is obviously you doing stupid things! They’re coming closer. They are coming for me. No doubt about it! The dude on the right tattooed his whole face in to look like a skull…does that mean he kills people? I hope he can’t hear my heart beating. He’s putting his hand in his pocket!!! I hope he’s the type to ask for my phone rather than shoot and then take my phone. Oh, Lord, I hope this is quick.
Wait, he’s still empty handed. He’s reaching out his hand and…. asking where I’m from and smiling?!? He hopes that I like Paraguay? He hopes I have a good day? Well that was an overreaction!”
I continue to be surprised by Paraguayan hospitality and friendliness…even from the ones who, if you adhere to the stereotypes, look like they would murder you without a second thought!