A city grows around a series of casual encounters that span a lifetime

I met Victoria before the supermarket Real Villa Morra was renovated in 1995. Maybe met is not the right word. She sat on the curb in front of the supermarket at the corner of Bogianni and Republica Argentina next to a wide basket filled with strawberries. She had brought them by bus from her home in Patiño, about 20 miles outside of Asuncion.

This was my first trip to Paraguay with my husband shortly after we got married. The neighborhood where he once ran barefoot and threw stones at the tiled roofs of the newly built two room dwellings had grown and was no longer at the outskirts of the city. As he got older it became the backyard of the wealthy and powerful. Mansions were erected among the scattered modest houses that also began to add on rooms and install higher walls and gates. In 1990, Villa Morra was already on its way to becoming a busy cosmopolitan area and the de facto center of the capital city.

Seven years after that first visit, the mall was built, and bigger mansions, walls and gates had sprung up. The landmark neighborhood grocery store down the block was a large modern supermarket with glass doors and a covered parking lot.

It was Christmastime and the scent of palm flowers filled the air. Victoria sat across the street in the shade of a tree wearing a tee shirt and jeans. Making sure we could not miss her, she flagged my sister-in-law and me down as we walked to the supermarket. We bought tiny local pineapples and imported apples to cut up with grapes from the backyard to mix with wine for the clericó we would drink on Christmas Eve.

When I moved to Asuncion in 2008 I remember buying overripe plums I made into sorbet with some limes from the trees in our backyard. I was so delighted with it I scooped some into a cup and brought it to Victoria to taste. In the heat of the summer afternoon, she crooned, “This is sooo delicious,” with a typical Paraguayan emphasis as the traffic rumbled behind her.

Now that I went food shopping regularly, I would sometimes be relieved as I approached the corner and saw that Victoria was not by her crates, having taken a break to go to the bathroom, eat lunch, or get a cup of coffee. Other times I would cringe as she called out to me, “Amiga” while I wagged my finger to signal that I couldn’t buy fruit that day. She might seem annoyed as I hurried by, but then she would ask me about my sister-in-law and we would strike up a conversation anyway.

One of the last times I saw her, Victoria told me how she had once wanted to be a translator like me. When she was a little girl she lived with a family in Buenos Aires. She loved studying English. But when she was twelve her mother died and her father brought her back to Patiño to help at home. She had been selling fruit on this corner six days a week for the past 32 years. And I had been buying fruit from her for 27. Now her granddaughter was studying English and she wanted to help her.

That day I spent all the money I had on six pears and two pounds of strawberries. After I walked away I realized that I did not have bus fare to get home. Not sure what to do, it occurred to me to go back and ask Victoria for the money. She laughed and handed me fifty cents.

That was right before I moved back to the United State. But when I go back, I’ll have to return the money, see how she is doing, give her a Spanish-English picture dictionary for her granddaughter, and buy a few kilos of strawberries.


4:30 in the Morning

I wake up. It is early in the morning. I go to the kitchen and fill the electric water heater. It is the first appliance I bought the day Matthew and I moved to the apartment, before we had a refrigerator or a stove. During the few minutes it takes the water to boil, I empty the used yerba from the mate, rinse it and fill it with more yerba from the plastic container. I then open the wood veneer Achón cabinet and take down one of the glass instant coffee jars filled with herbs and put in a few pinches of chamomile. Tilting the mate to move the yerba to one side, I accommodate the bombilla in the space, and then hold it upright, shaking it a bit, so the yerba covers the strainer at the bottom.

I walk over to the sliding glass door and pull back the curtains, which I fasten with a clothespin, and open it just enough to allow me to move the sturdy wooden chair onto the balcony. Chairs, like steak knives, have many uses. This one, compact, solid and sturdy is paint stained and scarred. It has nicks from being used to saw, hammer and fix other things. It has been placed on the bed to change a light bulb, and moved from room to room, and from the front yard to the back many times. Many hands touching the hardwood have left it smooth and worn. It was the only memento I asked my sister-in-law for when Matthew and I moved out of the house to the apartment on Azara.

It is dark outside except for the street lamps and the spotlight that illuminates the entrance to the children’s hospital, which glares from across the street. The Instituto Privado del Niño is a landmark and the best way to describe the location of my four-story building, which is removed from the sidewalk and partly hidden by the green wrought iron fence and garage door, making it unnoticeable on this busy street. Even after naming the cross streets, looks of recognition do not appear until I say, across the street from the Instituto Privado del Niño. That everybody knows.

It’s 4:30 in the morning. I’m sitting on the balcony three floors over Azara, with my feet resting on the railing. I pull down the bottoms of my pajama pants to protect my ankles from the jarring coolness of the metal. A crescent moon lingers in the dark western sky. The blue thermos rests on my leg and in the crook of one arm. The aluminum covered palo santo feels warm resting in my hand. I sip the hot liquid from the silver straw.

It is September. A gentle breeze is coming up the street from the river. It is not a January morning, when stagnant, hot air suffocates, even at this hour, or July, when ferocious gusts of damp wind, rattle the window frames, shake the tangle of cables that stretch from the buildings to the street, chill my feet and blow hair across my face.

The balcony is much longer than it is wide. The floor is covered with smooth brick and the yellow paint on the railing is starting to peel. It is impossible to be out on the balcony for most of the day. It is more of an obligatory bit of architecture, a nice design, rather than truly functional. The building faces southwest. After the sun rises up over it from behind the building, until late in the evening, when it sets over the river, the heat and glare are almost unbearable. As are the fumes and noise from the shifting gears and breaks of the old diesel buses, and the constant flow of traffic heading toward downtown Asuncion.

Still, at times during the day, I step onto the balcony and look down the street to watch the passing cars, buses, motorcycles or people busy at work. There is the elderly woman who sells candy on the corner. She is friendly and has a kind smile. People walking down the street, or sitting in their cars waiting for the stoplight to change, talk to her as they buy her candy. The kid who fixes motorcycles lies on his back on the sidewalk. Three or four motorcycles are lined up around him, while a group of men stand around talking and drinking tereré. The energetic pharmacy manager, so neat in his navy jeans and white cotton dress shirt, goes back and forth between the pharmacy and the hospital with supplies. Families pass by and sift through the garbage bags that line the streets waiting for collection. They are looking for plastic that can be recycled. Young indigenous men and women just look for food. And on the corner sits la yuyera, the corpulent woman who sells roots and herbs. She crushes the ones her customers pick out from the large open basket resting on an apple crate in a big wooden mortar and pestle.

But for now, the streets are still quiet. The night guard, who is preparing to leave his shift, sits with the morning guard in front of the hospital. They are drinking mate and laughing. Their booming voices, and the few cars driving down the block when the traffic light on Brasil changes, are the only sounds that break into the morning silence.

The sun is beginning to rise behind me. There is a tall building next to me, and I see a few more in the distance, but most of the buildings are low, giving me an open view of ceramic tiled rooftops, sunken backyards enclosed by painted brick walls, and purple bouquets, the last of the flowering lapachos that line the streets all the way down to the river. I cannot actually see the river. In order to do that, I have to walk to the end of the balcony, stand on my toes and stretch over to the right and look past the building. If it is a clear day I get a glimpse of the bay in the distance.

The sky is getting lighter. The spotlight goes off, the streetlamps too. The elderly gentleman who helps the yuyera comes down the block with his wheelbarrow full from the market and sets up the stand on the corner. The traffic begins to get heavy. Cars line up when the light turns red on Estados Unidos. The 27 arrives and stops below me. Two women get off and cross the street. They joke with the pharmacy manager as he removes the padlock and raises the metal shutters. Other shutters open. The kid from the motorcycle repair shop steps out onto the sidewalk and the used clothing seller next door arranges shirts on hangers in the open doorway.

I get up to go inside. I bring the thermos and mate with me and return to get the chair. The repetitive double toot of the traffic cop’s whistle rises above the din. Then the pounding from the floor above, my neighbor’s daily ritual, preparing the roots and herbs to put in his thermos of cold water for his tereré. As I take one last look from the balcony, and go to pick up the chair, something stops me in my tracks. It takes me a moment to realize what it is. And then I smile, recognizing the aroma of caramelizing sugar and toasting yerba mate that floats up to me, from anywhere. I hesitate, not wanting to let it go, but like all things, it dissipates and moves on. Sometimes, the only thing I want to do is sit on the balcony with my feet up, the thermos on my lap, look out over the city and sip mate, I think as I pick up the chair, turn to go inside to get ready and to start the day.

La reina de los yuyos

Daniela sits on a chair against a wall covered with chipping blue paint that advertises cell phone servicing and repairs in bright yellow letters. She is flanked on either side by a row of flat round baskets propped up on cardboard boxes, apple and milk crates. Some are filled with bags of dried herbs. Others have fresh leaves, stems and roots arranged in bunches. To her right is the large wooden mortar and pestle used to crush them. Daniela’s skirt and apron spread across her lap. Unblinkingly, she gazes straight ahead as I quickly approach after exiting my building a few yards up the block.

The older gentleman, who is now unpacking small boxes of prepared herbal remedies from a large plastic garbage bag and placing them along the ledge of the blue wall, passed by my balcony with the overflowing wheelbarrow as he returned from the market earlier that morning. I stop abruptly to wait for an opportunity to navigate the stream of people walking single file along the edge of the curb around the two young women choosing pohã ro’ysã from the basket nearest the corner, and the man pounding his own herbal mix in the mortar next to Daniela, and remember to ask her if she has any fruit today. She looks up, as if she does not recognize me and then looks at a plastic bag by her feet, the same bag my eyes find as I quickly search for the answer to my question as I ask it. She picks up the bag. A smile of recognition starts in her eyes and works its way to her mouth as she holds it out to me.

Mburukuya?” I ask her.

Hêe, mburukuya,” she nods.

I hesitate thinking that I will have to take out my keys, open the front gate and then the front door of the building –which takes two hands and some fiddling– climb three flights of stairs, unlock the heavy cedar door to the hallway between the doorways of the two apartments on my floor before arriving at the front door of my apartment, where I will drop the bag on the kitchen counter, before running back down again.

“How much?”

“12,000.” She is still holding the bag out in front of her.

But of course I cannot resist. $2.50 for a bag of 12 passion fruit that will yield enough juice to both drink and make sorbet, so refreshing in this heat. Nor can I refuse her after I made the inquiry.

“Two for 20,000” she inevitably adds. Today she has more than one bag.

I wince slightly at the added expense, but know I have to take the opportunity when it comes. I move closer to let people coming down the block pass by while I fish around for my wallet in my handbag. I hold out two 10,000 Guaraní bills to her, thinking of the aroma that will fill the kitchen when I cut each one in half, and the bowl filled with the orange and yellow pulp.

“Thank you.”

“Tomorrow, I’ll have more,” she says as she hands the bags to me and turns her head toward a customer asking for cangorosa.

And now I smile, because this interaction made both of us happy.