Ghost Buildings

On the 2-hour bus ride from my home to the Peace Corps office are many sights that have come to symbolize Paraguay in my mind, but the most vivid is a vacant lot it which stands several incomplete apartment buildings. Those buildings don’t have roofs or windows and the walls are unfinished. The brick, mud, and cement skeleton of what might have been the home of generations of families grays with age. The grass grows tall and a sign that probably announced the development project when someone broke ground on the construction is too faded to read.

When I first saw the buildings I thought of a war-zone or a devastating fire. I wondered, “What happened here?” I still don’t know why that complex stands destitute until the rain washes the structures away, but I now know enough about Paraguay to be confident it wasn’t a tragedy that condemned the place. Most likely, the person funding the project ran out of money and walked away. Just as was the case with so many little houses I see scattered about when I travel—some with finished walls, some with partial roofs.

With little access to credit and varying access to good-paying jobs across the country improvement projects and development move slow. Paraguay is a place of dreams. A dreamland where the bridge between reality and aspiration is still being built. Some people are able to paddle across the gap, and some decide to dream on and live as they always have. Paraguay is a land of opportunity, but only the lucky and the determined make it big.

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The Route aka the Ruta

I live on a “ruta,” which is to say I live on one of the biggest roads in Paraguay—don’t let your imagination get away from you…it’s two lanes. What makes it a big deal is that it’s paved. Most roads are dirt or cobblestone.

My ruta has a steady stream of traffic. Where I live, a distance for any major urban area, the traffic never backs up. Vehicles are always on the horizon, but crossing isn’t difficult. You might be interested to learn that Paraguay has a robust trucking industry. The most commonly moved things (according to my observation) are cattle, yucca, whatever fruit is in season, and construction materials like bricks.

A note about cattle. I’m not talking about moving a couple of cattle and nor am I talking about already dead cattle already cut into nice little stakes. I’m talking about diesel-billowing trucks with two carts behind them each with maybe ten or twenty cattle. The cattle aren’t tied in or in individual stalls, they’re jammed into the carts side-by-side. The only reason they don’t fall over is because they’re packed in there only a little less cozy than sardines. They are not your dainty Jerseys or your stubby Angus. They’re a breed that ranges from white to light brown with large ears and skin dangling from their necks. They’re large, taller than many breeds, more like Holsteins than Herefords. Here cattle always have their horns, and they can sometimes be over a foot long, though usually they’re closer to six inches.

The ruta makes my community more prosperous than many communities that is hidden on some dirt road out in the boonies of Paraguay. Why? Because we have buses that allow us to leave more than once or twice a day. I have a bus out every 20 minutes from 4 o’clock in the morning to 7-ish in the evening. Buses come back to my community as late as 10 pm. That means people can work in other towns and cities if they want to commute.

But, like most things in life, the ruta brings a little bit of bad with the good. It is noisy. That’s one. It brings “extranjeros,” which is a term for anyone not born in the community and in Paraguay is the catch-all scapegoat. Extranjeros are the perpetrators of all bad things. But, more subtlety and interestingly, the ruta divides the community in half. The people who live on one side talk to the other side infrequently. This communication divide is good when trying to avoid gossip, but not ideal for fostering cooperation among all members of the community.

The ruta plays an important role in my community, and it’s a new role. It was only about five or so years ago that the government built it. Before that, my community was secluded and hardly known. The ruta opened up a world of economic opportunity and reduced the time it takes to get to Asunción, the capital of Paraguay, by something like 50, 60 percent.

Maybe it’s the newness of the ruta, but the people view it with wariness. Even young women, not just children and parents, often hold hands when crossing the ruta. Rightfully, mothers worry about their children when they cross the road. You might too. We have the trucks and cars speeding along, passing whenever they want. On top of that, we have dirk bikes flying along the curb, sometimes in the right direction and sometimes in the wrong direction. Sometimes dirk bikes use lights at night, sometimes they don’t. At least they’re deafening so I know when they’re coming.

The chickens, which run free, don’t cross the road…probably wise.