The Saturday photo, part IV: dawn on New Year’s Day, seen from the Rambla looking out over the Rio de la Plata, Uruguay.
The Saturday photo, part II: Lima from the balcony of my apartment.
This is a view towards downtown, looking over the Campo de Marte from the district of Jesús María. The view is almost identical from the window over my desk, and I spend a lot of time watching people playing tennis or football down below. It’s also always something of a lottery as to how many (if any) hills you can see in the distance through the city’s characteristic haze. This photo’s taken on a sunny and relatively clear day, but you can’t see the slums rising up the hill on the left, and there’s a hill on the right, out towards Lurigancho or La Molina, that’s completely obscured.
During the 1980s, Shining Path set flames to mark out the hammer and sickle on these hills, to give the sense that they were besieging the capital. With the city in darkness, thanks to blackouts and sabotaged electricity pylons, the effect must have been pretty sinister. (Paloma de papel shows the guerrilla as they stage a similar scene in the highlands.) Somewhere in the trees to the far right of this shot is the “Ojo que llora” (“the weeping eye”), a monument to those killed and disappeared during the war.
Half the places I tried to go in San Salvador were closed. It was Monday and the Museum of Popular Art didn’t open until Tuesday. A café I’d been recommended was shut until Wednesday. And when I arrived at the Museum of the Word and Image, there too I was faced with a locked door. I’d got there in the middle of a two-hour lunchbreak. So I stopped a the little cantina next door. Even to call it a cantina was to say too much. It had a concrete floor, corrugated iron roof, and chicken wire walls. The kitchen was an open wood fire and a couple of sinks. But the corn tortillas were excellent: soft, tasty. They took me back. There was a time when I’d eaten nothing but beans and tortillas, occasionally spiced up with a bit of chile pepper, for almost a month. That got old, soon. But for now I welcomed a proper hand-made tortilla, nothing like the thin and flavorless factory products found in Mexico and Mexican restaurants throughout the world.
But Salvador’s national food is the pupusa: a tortilla stuffed with cheese or beans. You can buy them hot off the grill at any market or street corner in provincial towns. A few days later, amid the bustle of a place called San Francisco Gotera in which the central plaza was over-run by market stalls, I sat down for some pupusas. Hot, greasy, overloaded with melted cheese, they were delicious. They came with assorted pickled vegetables that I scooped up with the tortilla and my fingers. I downed the sweet, tepid coffee that was also on offer. And asked to pay. I didn’t quite understand reply, but I knew it was three something. I proffered three dollars, only to receive a laugh and two dollars twenty-five in change. It turns out that the Salvadorans, who abandoned colones for their currency and now rely on US greenbacks and coins, talk in terms of “coras” or “quarters.” The meal had been three quarters. Seventy-five cents, and no thought of taking advantage of my confusion.
Back at the museum, I decided to try my luck and ring the bell to see if they’d let me in anyway. A woman answered and after a brief consultation welcomed me inside. But it wasn’t quite what I’d expected. I’d thought that this would be a monument to the war experience. I was somewhat chastened to discover instead an emphasis first on the indigenous culture of the West, and second an exhibition in preparation on the noted painter Salarrué. I was a fairly unabashed war tourist, but here I was brought up short. But in one room was a doorway covered by a rough mat curtain, on which was pinned a note saying “You can open this curtain at your own risk… Reconstruction of the ‘Cave of Passions,” in La Guacamaya, Morazán, 1982.”
I took the risk and moved the cloth aside, to find a darkened room with a couple of chairs and a bank of aged radio equipment. This was the small homage to Radio Venceremos, the guerrilla radio, in the museum run by its most famous representative, a man who still went by his nom de guerre of “Santiago.”.
But it was as though hiding the “cave of passions” were both a rebuke to the over-nostalgic seeking to relive some kind of war experience, and also a reminder to others of passions that still lay just a twitch of a curtain away. It was a gesture of showing and not showing, insisting either way that there was more to the country than you might have thought.
I arrived in El Salvador to be greeted by a tropical downpour. Even in the airport, in front of the customs and immigration agents, the rain was dripping through the roof into buckets arrayed on the floor. If the country wanted to give international visitors the sense of modernity and that it could cope with the elements, it hadn’t made a great start of things.
When I was traveling through Central America in the 1980s, Salvadoran border posts were always the site of a rather anxious lottery. How much would they look through your luggage and what exactly would they find suspicious? How many days would they allow you to stay in the country? I used to stuff anything vaguely incriminating way down at the bottom of my backpack, and try to make sure I was among the very first travelers of the day, in the belief that the guards would be too sleepy or perhaps still with some morning goodwill to bother with all the formalities. With luck, the would let me through without too much hassle, hopefully stamping my passport with at least fifteen days, ideally thirty.
So I still felt a residual sense of tension as I confronted the immigration official, hardly much helped by the sense of some disorder as the rain continued to come down beside me. He asked me if this was my first visit to the country. No, I truthfully said. I was last here a few years ago. When? He asked. Four, five years ago, I said vaguely. He looked for the stamps, but I explained I’d renewed my passport since then. And how long are you planning to stay? Five days, I replied, adding forty eight hours just in case, to give me some leeway. OK, he said. And he stamped, returned my passport, and told me with a smile he’d given me three months. I thanked him and said I if I enjoyed my stay I’d think perhaps of hanging around a little longer.
Central America has a distinctive smell. The Canadian singer Bruce Cockburn described it as “dust and diesel” that “rise like incense from the road.” There’s also the woodsmoke on the breeze, and the special sense of how tropical rain cleanses everything, making it that little bit less grubby. I left the airport terminal and took my time before looking for a trustworthy taxi-driver. I breathed in El Salvador.
I wanted to stay in the Sheraton. For the sake of it, and because of the incident during the 1989 Offensive in which the FMLN guerrilla, during what was perhaps the turning point of the decade-long civil war, took control of the hotel, in the heart of the capital’s exclusive Escalón district. No matter that a night there now would cost me about the same sum as I used to live on for a month way back when. I was a different kind of traveler now. I felt able to indulge myself, and petty sense of symbolism. And no matter really either that the Sheraton now was in a different building altogether, and that what used to be the Sheraton was now a Radisson. I decided that it was the name that counted anyway.
Paraguay has a significant population of German immigrants and their descendants. It’s not the only Latin American country with a German influence: see Colonia Tovar in Venezuela, for instance, or the now rather nefarious Colonia Dignidad in Chile. And there’s little more surprising in the Yucatán and Belize than the sight of packs of blond Mennonites on the move, all cowboy hats, check shirts, and overalls for the boys and men, headscarves and dresses for the girls and women.
But in Paraguay the German presence is particularly notable. At times it is as though German were the country’s second language (or third, after the indigenous Guaraní). This page on German genealogy suggests there are 166,000 speakers of the language in the country. And at the hotel where I was staying last week, for instance, the guide to room services was in Spanish and German, rather than English. Most of the other visitors were speaking German, including a large group of young girls from the Chaco, in town for some kind of sports tournament, chaperoned by a tall young blond man with the air of a Christian youth leader, who spoke heavily accented Spanish.
The German colony in the Chaco are Mennonites who peaceably enough raise cattle and make cheese. By all accounts, the Chaco is a pretty desolate place, and the Mennonites and the Guaraní have it pretty much to themselves. (Even so, early last century the Paraguayans managed to lose a war with Bolivia over the territory.)
But then there are Germans and there are Germans. And the topic of Nazis or former Nazis in South America is always a subject of intrigue and speculation: luridly fictionalized as The Boys from Brazil or The Odessa File, but on the basis of real cases such as most famously Eichmann’s flight to and capture from Argentina. Josef Mengele, though he initially fled to Buenos Aires, spent signficant post-war time in Paraguay.
Still, I had either forgotten or repressed from my only previous visit to Paraguay the shock induced, this time, by noting the first day of my stay a Spanish translation of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion on sale at a street corner kiosk. Or, a little later, just off one of Asunción’s main squares, on the pavement outside a cybercafe, seeing two pencil drawings of Hitler on sale among the usual collection of secondhand textbooks and shabby novels. No irony, no self-consciousness as far as I could see: just a couple of portraits of the Führer, should I have wished to buy them as a souvenir of Paraguay.
I take it that most Paraguayan Germans shudder somewhat as I did in seeing such reminders of the Reich. Not least now that Germany itself is, with the World Cup, trying to rebrand itself beyond the clichés of either jackboots or dull efficiency. But perhaps more likely, these signs of history’s unsavoriness merely blend in with their adopted country’s long history of dictatorships (Doctor Francia “the Supreme” as well as that other son of Germany, Stroessner) and injudicious wars of aggression and catastrophic defeat.
UPDATE: Royden Loewen’s Mennonite and Nazi would seem to be a book to read, complicating my account above.