I was raised in Eastern Canada, where faint flashes on the horizon and distant rumbling counted as “thunder and lightning.” The excited chatter that ensued in elementary school on those rare occasions is, in retrospect, cute. I almost laugh at how excited I could become at the sight of a few silent streaks of lightning out at sea.
The earliest “real” thunderstorms I can recall were in Alabama on our regular summer vacations to visit family. I remember standing barefoot on the concrete pad outside Grandma’s laundry room as a child, sheltered under the awning of the roof and peering at the yard obscured by a sheeting curtain of rain that poured from the gutters. The rain was so thick you could barely see the other end of the yard. You could feel the thunder reverberate in your stomach! For a Canadian kid used to quiet snowfall and foggy rain, these deluges seemed Biblical in their intensity. They were invigorating and exciting like no snowstorm or rain-shower back home in Nova Scotia could ever compete with!
I loved thunderstorms when I lived in Bangladesh for two years as well. I would regularly stand by our back window watching as lightning, appearing in faint colors of blue, yellow and green due to the heavy air-pollution, struck buildings and trees off in the distance. I’d often use the din of thunder and rain to cover up my amateur guitar playing and vocal accompaniment. Once, a thunderstorm hit our neighborhood so hard that there was a literal waterfall running down the apartment building’s stairs from the roof. Even though our apartment risked flooding from above, a situation that felt so paradoxical, I still had an eager smile plastered across my face for the whole episode!
Now, in Paraguay, thunderstorm-season is beginning anew, and I realize how much I’ve missed the random, lightning-filled deluges that characterize this corner of the world. As I write this, I’m sitting on our balcony. The thermometer reads 36 degrees and the wind has been mounting all day. A tangible energy dominates. The air is electric. Every inch of my body seems to tingle. When I breathe the humid, earthy taste of Paraguay, my mouth salivates. Birds flap their wings as they return to their nests, calling one another in a manner that seems to communicate urgency. The street-dogs below are barking. The odd person or car that bustles past is clearly hoping to avoid being caught in the downpour and ankle-deep floods that could ensue. The tension mounts…
I spend thirty minutes feeding my blue-eyed baby girl blended chicken and butternut squash. She doesn’t want to eat. I discover that, if I jiggle my belly enthusiastically or contort my face until it hurts, she will approve the meal and agree to take a single bite. Dance. Clown. Repeat. Dance. Clown. Repeat.
End of Intermission:
Back to thunderstorms! Lightning is flashing through the clouds now and the temperature has dropped at least ten degrees. The air is fresh and cool in comparison to the heavy, swamp-butt humidity that dominated all day. Now, as I sit tucked into the nook of my balcony that splatters the least rain on my laptop, I watch the storm unfold. The rain sheets past the streetlight below looking like shimmering silver tinsel on a Christmas tree. The trees bend and whip frantically in the wind. The smell of rain fills my nostrils as bright flashes of light illuminate a leaden sky and thunder cracks all around our apartment building, assaulting me from different angles. I feel alive!
I think that electric feeling of life is one of the reasons I exhibit a childlike excitement when each thunderstorm rolls in. The intensity and energy of each storm reminds me that life isn’t all dishes, diapers and paperwork-drudgery. It is filled with wonders too. Thunderstorms are my occasional reminder to marvel and wonder at some of the beautiful sights, sounds and smells of Paraguay.
Danielle, I think, secretly enjoys my rush to the designated spot on the balcony with the signs of an impending squall. My thunderstorm giddiness is largely hidden in public. Most of you (I now directly address the very few people who read this) will never see that side of me. But rest assured, whenever a storm rolls in accompanied by rain, lightening, wind and thunder, the bare-foot boy who was entranced by those Alabama-downpours emerges. I hope he will never go away.
When I arrived in South America, of all the sights I wanted to see and exotic locales I hoped to wander, only a single city earned a spot on my “Must-Visit” list: Rio de Janeiro. We’ve lived in Paraguay for three years and, until now, other South American travel-priorities always superseded a visit to the Brazilian city of sand and samba. And with good reason. Machu Picchu, Patagonia, Uyuni, the Amazon and the Andes of Northern Argentina (among others) are tough competitors. We’ve focused most our vacation-time on outdoor pursuits and have hiked and camped a lot during our travels.
Then we had Alanna, our beautiful baby girl. As I have now learned, travel plans change rather drastically when you have an infant.
Carrying a tent and your own gear on your back as you hike around a canyon or coastline is feasible. Carrying a tent, your gear, a bazillion diapers, wet-wipes, butt-cream, clothes, cute little hats, teething toys, sleepers, a stroller, breast-feeding pillow, spit-up cloths, baby shampoo, blankets, and the baby itself increases the difficulty-level slightly!
For our first excursion outside of Asunción with Alanna, we quickly decided on Rio. It was a modern city, which implied a smorgasbord of pharmacies selling diapers, wipes, butt-cream, baby-medicine and any other necessities that might arise suddenly. A quick Google-Images search revealed that Rio has relatively well-maintained sidewalks – something we've learned never to take for granted. Rio has beaches - we love oceans. Rio boasted a variety of food and craft beer – we conveniently enjoy both. Also, for Danielle, Starbucks. It was decided. After two visits to the Brazilian embassy to apply for and acquire our visas, we hopped on a few planes and embarked on our first travelling adventure with our chubby-cheeked daughter.
I don’t want to bore you with the specifics of our baby-centred daily itinerary in Rio de Janeiro, so I’ve boiled down our baby-travel experience of traveling in Rio with a four-month old daughter into four observations:
1) I know that our week-long experience in Rio does not enable us to make a definitive statement regarding Brazilian attitudes towards children. However, I’m going to make one anyway: Brazilians seem to love babies. Even more than the average person loves babies. No, seriously; they really love babies.
Alanna’s drooling, droopy jowls were a magnet for cheerful commentary from smiling cariocas. The first phrase I learned in Portuguese was “Ela tem bochechas enormes,” or “she has enormous cheeks.” Alanna’s cheeks were pinched and fondled endlessly by random strangers ogling her “bochechas;” she basked in the attention by smiling coyly and then turning away in a vain effort to appear uninterested in the newfound attention. Having a baby in tow was also a magnet for kindness. Shoppers held doors for our stroller. Our Airbnb host playfully carted Alanna up four flights of stairs while we dealt with our bags. Taxi drivers stalled traffic by waving us across the street. Passerby’s helped pack our monster-stroller into Uber vehicles. While changing a (particularly gnarly) diaper on a Copacabana bench, a street-vender snatched her dirty diaper from the ground, folded it up neatly, and disposed of it in a rubbish bin before returning for a rewarding smile from Alanna. I could go on. In short, we were overwhelmed by the kindness we received throughout our week-long visit to Brazil’s star-city.
2) Our Airbnb was right on Ipanema beach, so a few hours of each day were spent strolling along the iconic wave-patterned cobblestone of Copacabana, Leblon and Ipanema. On these daily excursions, we tucked Alanna comfortably into her stroller, lathered sunscreen on her legs, wrestled a hat onto her balloon-head and picked our way through the joggers, cyclists, surfers, sun-tanners, beggars, vendors, police, artists, and tourists who swarm the beaches. It was relaxing to walk, chat and observe the incessant parade of humanity with the sounds of pounding waves and honking horns as a backdrop. Alanna clearly demonstrated the ocean-going nature of her parentage by falling asleep almost every time we left the Airbnb to the rhythmic song of the ocean. It was great.
3) Dragging a baby around amplifies the difficulty in taking quality photographs of our travels. This lesson was best-exemplified by our experience at the Cristo Redentor, the Brazilian behemoth Jesus-statue overlooking the city that was selected as one of the Seven Modern Wonders of the World. The throngs of maniacal, camera-wielding tourists made it difficult to navigate our stroller, let alone watch our bags, pose and snap photos from odd angles. When Alanna started fussing to boot, we basically gave up, gave the outstretched stone arms a final glance and took off to calm an impending scream-storm. In previous travel-escapades, I could take my time and try to capture quality pictures. Now that we have our gorgeous gordita in tow, getting the right shot is subservient to the whims of my daughter’s attention span and ever-changing mood. On the bright side, pictures of myself have been generally improved by the beatifying presence of my daughter.
4) Travel-dining with an infant is a radical break from our pre-baby habits. We found ourselves searching for food that would be easy and quick rather than finding Brazilian fare. Leisurely conversation over food and drinks has come to a temporary halt; when we settled into our seats for a meal, we understood that we had a ticking time-bomb in our possession that would inevitably “explode” by loudly demanding a feeding, a bum-change or a change in scenery. The unintended result of this knowledge was that we ate in restaurants less and relied even more heavily on supermarkets than normal.
Our first journey with Alanna was a learning experience. We didn’t do or see as much as we likely would have in our pre-baby days. It was well-worth it though. Our experience of Rio de Janeiro was enriched by sharing it with her. I wouldn’t trade the addition of her smiles, globs of drool, cuddles and wide-eyed wonder to our travels for anything! Rio de Janeiro will stand out in our memories not for the beaches, the food, the views or the friendly carioca vibe; will be memorable because it was our first big adventure as a little family.
And I’ll always remember the meaning of “bochechas enormes”!
The highlight of Rio de Janeiro, for me at least, was not walking the iconic beaches of Copacabana, Leblon and Ipanema, the stunning views from the Sugarloaf cable car, the Christ Redeemer statue or the wonderful, but admittedly expensive, craft-beer. It was a set of stairs.
The Escadaria Selarón is the handiwork of Chilean artist Jorge Selarón, who lived in the hill-side community of Santa Teresa from 1983 to his death in 2013. In 1990, he began to renovate a set of dilapidated steps near his home on a whim using broken tiles and hand-painted bathtub porcelain lifted from construction sites and broken mirrors scavenged from landfills. Upon the completion of his original venture, Selarón set his gaze on beautifying another staircase a few feet away. His side-project soon blossomed into a lifetime obsession; he dedicated twenty-three years of his life to what became his magnum-opus.
Initially Selarón funded his project by selling paintings of an enigmatic pregnant African woman but, as word of his art spread, he began receiving donations of hand-painted tiles from around the globe. Over the years, the steps spidered across the community, incorporating thousands of colourful tiles from dozens of countries on every continent, all carefully mortared into the stairs by Selarón himself. He dedicated his work to the people of Rio de Janeiro and viewed the stairs as a living work of art stating that his labour of love would only “end on the day of my death.” Selarón’s labours ended early on the morning of January 10, 2013 when his body was found soaked in paint thinner and burned at the foot of the staircase. Selarón literally lived, worked and died surrounded by his art.
We visited Santa Teresa and the Escadaria Selarón on our final day in Rio after almost deciding to skip it in favour of a beach-day. The minute we hopped out of the taxi (well…as much as you can hop out of a taxi when an infant is involved) we instantly knew we’d made the right decision. The kaleidoscope of colours and textures combined with the killer views from the top was mesmerizing. We spent several hours participating in what was essentially a scavenger hunt on an obstacle course - hunting for tiles while politely attempting to avoid photo-bombing other tourist’s pictures. Donated tiles displayed scenes from a multiplicity of landscapes and countries, from Switzerland to Swaziland, Australia to Albania, Canada to Costa Rica - if you can think of a country, you’d probably be able to find a tile from there if you searched hard enough!
While we scoured the staircase, I couldn’t help but be awed and inspired by Selarón’s dedication to his craft. The immeasurable amounts of time, energy and sweat required to construct and constantly reinvent such an intricate, functional and unique piece of art was humbling and thought-provoking. I was reminded of the architects, stone-masons and carvers of the Middle Ages who devoted their entire lives to constructing a single cathedral knowing that they would likely die before its completion. There is something incredibly noble and honourable about such endeavours. I can hardly imagine being so invested in a single project that I would literally dedicate my life to it - I have enough trouble dedicating myself adequately to a five day work-week!
In some ways, Selarón’s staircase is the carioca equivalent of those cavernous cathedrals of Christianity. While Europe’s churches are somberly dedicated to the worship of God, the Escadaria Selarón was described by Selarón as a “tribute to the Brazilian people.” While cathedrals were designed encourage awe-filled worship by naturally raising heads of the congregation to intricately carved ceilings and stained-glass arches, Selarón’s masterpiece celebrates the diversity, playfulness, and beauty of the city and people of Rio de Janeiro with a riot of colours.
When we departed the next day and the plane ascended over the jumbled metropolis of Rio de Janeiro, it wasn’t the beaches, views or food that I knew I would remember – it was those stairs. For me at least, Jorge Selarón had left his mark.
I don’t often focus on current-events with this blog, as it is designed to be a (rarely updated) record of our experiences abroad rather than a soapbox for political rants. With the recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia raging through my mind, I’ve been reminded of Paraguay’s recent struggles for reconciliation after a dictatorship and thought that it offers a few interesting parallels.
Alfredo Stroessner’s 35-year rule of Paraguay earned him the dubious distinction of being the longest-ruling dictator in the South America. He was devoutly anti-communist and used harsh methods of intimidation, torture and murder to maintain his iron-grip of the country.
His legacy in Paraguay continues to be controversial today. Many of Stroessner’s former supporters maintain political and economic control as members of a business-elite; they revere him and openly pine with nostalgia for the good ole days of his totalitarian dictatorship. Most of the intellectual class in contrast, as the primary victims of Stroessner’s suppression campaigns, hate everything he stands for with a vehemence that is astounding to witness in person. Paraguayans are known for being a relaxed nation; the national motto is tranquilo pa, which loosely translates to, “no worries.” But emotions can run hot when Paraguayans discuss Stroessner!
That’s where the connection to Charlottesville came to mind. Stroessner (like most dictators it seems) had a statue fetish. The country was covered with bronze effigies of himself standing authoritatively, confident in his total control. When he was ousted in 1989, congress passed a law mandating the removal of all statues from plazas, hills and roadsides around the country. They also demanded the renaming of schools, roads, buildings and anything else bearing his name. Even the second largest city in the country, Puerto Stroessner, was rechristened Ciudad del Este. This task was monumental (pun intended). It took two years but in 1991, a final one-ton statue was removed from a hill-top in Lambare. What the Paraguayans did with the scrap in 1991 could, in my opinion, serve as an interesting compromise for the Southern United States’ plethora of Confederate statues.
To remember the legacy of Stroessner, the innovative Paraguayans dismembered the statue and smashed it between two blocks of concrete. They then set it up again in its mangled form in a downtown Asuncion plaza, where it still sits today. I feel like this balances the arguments on both sides of the debate, the “preserve our history” crowd and the “tear it down” protester camp. When I first noticed the memorial during my second trip to the downtown core after I’d moved to Paraguay, I had a surprisingly visceral reaction. To me, Stroessner’s face peering out of the concrete, his hands reaching as if he is caged, seems like a huge political statement; although Paraguay may never fully escape from his shadow, that doesn’t preclude a newfound commitment to justice and democracy. I think this is my favorite Paraguayan monument as a result. Thanks for reading my musings.
The first time I heard of Paraguay was in tenth-grade history class. After being assigned the task of researching preventable disasters and exploring strategies for avoiding similar tragedies in the future, one classmate presented on a little-known corner of the world: Asunción. A fire in a supermarket had killed almost four-hundred people, largely because there were few fire-exits incorporated in the design and, at the outset of the fire, the front doors had been locked by a security guard to prevent theft. After discussing the horrifying case with my class for a few minutes, I promptly forgot about the blaze; Paraguay’s largest peace-time disaster was relegated to the deep recesses of my memory.
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.
Paragraph. Haz clic parked my car a block away from the building and walked straight through what used to be the main entrance. There is a barred-off memorial with grainy photos of the victims, weather-worn personal belongings and droopy plastic flowers that is inaccessible except, perhaps, on special occasions. I passed a simple metal plaque containing the names of all 396 victims plastered onto the brick façade as I climbed the broken stairs up to the main level.
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.
As I left the abandoned supermarket-shell, I felt guilty in a way that I still can’t explain. I’m still trying to answer the question for why I went, and why others go, to monuments of unspeakable horror like Ycuá Boleños. What compels humans to visit the sites of mass human suffering? How closely should I examine my motivations for exploring these kinds of places?
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!