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 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!
Paraguay may not be the first country to come to mind when thinking about world-class cultural scenes or stunning landscapes but it can certainly claim some of the globe’s quirkiest history!
From the first true attempt at communism (prominently featuring Nietzsche’s sister) to a colony of staunchly religious Manitobans who thrive on the production of yoghurt to the harbouring of the infamous Nazi Dr. Mengele, Paraguay boasts a kaleidoscope of historical idiosyncrasies.
Dani and I walk by the Club General Genes field every day on the way to work. The faded blue sign boasts “Established on December 17, 1929” in peeling flakes. The field looks its age! The cancha is falling apart and what may have once been the nicest field in Asuncion is now ringed by a crumbling wall and a small pack of feral dogs. I never paid it much attention but then I stumbled upon an awe-inspiring, walk-to-work-revolutionizing article on a Paraguayan website highlighting a unique moment in global history.
Please allow me to regale you with a tale of hot-blooded adventure mixed with a healthy dose of bad luck.
On a sweltering Saturday afternoon in 1957, a sixteen-year old Club Genes defencemen named Fidel Trido was playing a hard-fought match against a rival. At half-time, his team decided to shelter from the oppressive heat in the shady grove of trees that lined the edge of the pitch. The team huddled together, trying to listen to their coach’s advice but there was one tiny problem: a single-prop CAP-4 Paulistinha plane. The pilot was an avid fan of Club Genes who regularly took to the skies for a better “seat” to watch Genes matches, but this weekend, he aggressively buzzed the field multiple times as he circled the cancha. Trido’s team couldn’t hear their coach because of the incessant droning and they were becoming increasingly irate. Trido finally reached a tipping point of frustration, grabbed a bright-orange soccer-ball, sprinted to centrefield, screamed “I’m going to give him some of his own medicine”, and booted the ball into the air in what he no doubt thought was a simple act of defiance communicating his team’s annoyance.
The ball hit the nose of the plane, lodgeding in between the motor and propeller. The wooden propeller shattered. The plane plummeted from the sky, skirting the tree-tops ringing the field before smashing into the ground a few hundred feet away.
Apparently, everyone on the field stood in silence for a moment before stampeding towards the crash-site. Fortunately, both occupants of the plane were shaken (duh) but unhurt. The referee soon decided that enough time had been wasted, announced it was high-time that the match continued and invited both pilots to return to the field to finish watching the match. The mob returned and saw Club Genes soundly defeat their opponents. After the last whistle, the pilot searched out Trido, reassured him that there was no hard feelings, urged him to continue playing his hardest and then left the field. I can’t say this for certain, but I’ll bet that’s the last time he ever brought his plane to a football match!
I love Paraguay for stories like this. On the surface, the country may feel a bit bland, but when I begin scratching beneath the surface, I never fail to be impressed.
I’ve gained a new appreciation for the Club Genes cancha. Now, when I begin my walk to work, my day is brightened by visions of a bright-orange football streaking into the air and knocking a plane out of the sky.
Since November, a major part of my free time has involved tirelessly applying for positions at international jobs around the world. I filled out application after application, wrote cover letter after cover letter and sent them off into the empty, black-hole-void of the Internet. Most often, I did not receive any replies, just disheartening, utterly discouraging silence.
I had almost given up hope and was tentatively planning on returning home to Canada and continuing life there but recently, I had an exciting explosion of emails arrive in my inbox, which led to Skype interviews, which in turn led to multiple job offers. I ended up choosing between four jobs in four very different countries. I had given up hope on finding another international job at all, let alone having the opportunity to be choosey!
For fun, I have listed the cities I applied to below. As I dutifully typed query letters and plugged my credentials into yet another job-specific application form, I found myself researching and learning about each country and city prior to sending off my resume. At the time it may have been a welcome distraction from the drudgery of application forms but in the end, I essentially took a part-time course in global geography!
The list in and of itself is a kind of geography challenge. If you know the country that most of these cities belong to, you can be proud that your knowledge of political geography is better polished than most! Give the "Jon's Job Hunt Geography Challenge" a try and tally your score out of forty-eight!
Ho Chi Min City
I should mention, that some of these cities, upon closer inspection are sure to have some of my relatives (particularly in-laws) shuddering. Never fear, we’ve landed in a safe place.
In the end, we decided to move to Asuncion, Paraguay. Although we will be genuinely sad to say goodbye to Dhaka, we are incredibly excited and cannot wait to discover what opportunities await us in sunny South America! More details on Paraguay starting in mid-July and stay tuned for a torrent of writing about Dhaka. I only have two months left and there is so, so much to write about!