Thursday, November 22, 2007

Paraguay, parte dos

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! The turkey's roasting in the oven, the guests have been invited, and Kati and I are getting ready to make sweet potatoes and green bean casserole. But for now, I have a few moments to continue my saga.

Okay. Deep breath.

In the city center, we went to various touristy places: a memorial to Paraguay's presidents, a museum of National History, a few parks, and finally we were to head to the Palacio, the government building and supposedly very beautiful. Unfortunately I wouldn't know, as I never made it. (Achem: there's that foreshadowing again! A bit heavy-handed, I know...but I'm stalling)

One of the things Esther had told me to see was the Bahia, the view of the Rio Paraguay in front of the Palacio. We were nearly at the Palacio, when Vivian suggested we head down to the riverfront. To our left was the building, to our right, rows and rows of slum housing. What I've heard of the Favelas in Brazil aside, shanty towns don't make me nervous. I have worked, and lived, in the slums of several countries, and never had a problem. Nevertheless, I held my bag a little closer to my side.

As we walked, we passed a group of kids playing futbol in the dirt fields in front of the river. I looked around to see who was there, and finding no adults around, I surreptitiously took out my camera and took a picture, then put it back in my bag. By this time, though, we had been noticed, and were suddenly swarmed with kids. This wasn't really alarming, as I've had that happen to me a lot, except that they were trying to reach their hands into my bag. Still, for the most part they were smiling, and I was smiling back, and didn't feel frightened.

Then, all of a sudden, one of them grabbed the Star of David from around my neck and yanked it off. Any other necklace and I wouldn't have cared, but that was a gift from a dear friend after my conversion, and has a lot of value to me--and none to them. The strangest thing was, the kid that took it just stood there, holding it and staring at me. So I asked for it back, following him a bit as he backed up.

I wasn't afraid, I was furious. And I still think if we had just left, we would have been fine. But Vivian made a pretty dire mistake: She took out her cell phone to call the police. Kati had warned me before that in Paraguay, they'll kill you for your cell phone, though I still had trouble believing it. But as soon as that phone came out, all hell broke loose.

Suddenly I was surrounded by kids, screaming and trying to wrench the bag from my hands, pulling my hair and hitting me. At first I was so shocked I clung to my bag, but it got progressively more violent, and some of the kids were older, teenagers with menacing faces mingled in with the oddly still smiling faces of the younger ones. Somehow I ended up on the ground, and I don't remember much. The last thing I remember through the haze was looking up and seeing one of them leap into the air, and come down on my face.

I suppose I lost consciousness, though I didn't realize it. Vivian told me later she found me blacked out and bleeding. She was bruised and scratched up, but somehow most of the venom was aimed at me. Because I struggled, maybe? I don't know. I remember being picked up by some women who had come out of the shanty town, and led into their homes. I was hysterical, but I couldn't feel any pain. I was really confused. I was seeing things in tunnel vision: my bare feet sloshing through the mud, my legs covered in blood, the brown arms of the women helping me. I couldn't remember where I was, or what happened.

They sat me and Vivian down inside, and wiped my face with dirty rags. Vivian was crying, and kept saying to me how sorry she was. I looked at her, and I remembered who she was, and that I was in Asuncion, but I couldn't remember when I got there, how I got there. I kept asking her, and she kept saying, "You don't remember? You don't remember?"

An odd thing: We were speaking Spanish, and I could understand everything perfectly. The ladies came back in, carrying our empty bags, and said something to Vivian. We wouldn't get my camera back or her cell phone, but we could maybe get the memory chips from inside. She was pleading with them to help, and asking for the police. They took us into the bathroom to wash our legs, and I stood their shaking and crying while they washed the blood and dirt off of me, still trying to think clearly, to calm down, to remember what happened.

Finally we were being led outside, and there were three policeman waiting for us. They kept saying "Tranquila, tranquila," and led us to the police car. We waited for a few minutes while they took down what we had lost, our account of the story, and interviewed some of the people there. Vivian needed to pick up her son, so as they drove me to the hospital, she asked to be dropped off at her car and promised to meet me at the hospital.

I had no papers, and no money, so they took me to the public emergency room. This consisted of a long room crammed full of beds, in which lay people in various stages of distress and pain. There were cockroaches scurrying on the floor. The bed they took me to had bloodstains on it.

Still, the doctors were excellent. They were med students, who were required to do a rotation in public health. They were young, and treated me with such gentleness and kindness that I started crying again. At this point my Spanish, which had somehow moved into fluency in the moments after the assault, completely disappeared, and I was left explaining what happened to me as best as I could. By now I remembered more, could give them my name and birthday and tell them what happened, but I was also starting to feel pain. My head felt like someone inside of it was suffocating, and desperately trying to get out.

They took me for x-rays in ancient machines in dirty rooms, after which I sat waiting in the hall for the results. Suddenly I was nauseous, and asked for a trashcan, into which I promptly started vomiting. There was a woman sitting next to me, and she held my forehead and cooed to me, mostly because my head hurt so badly that I was screaming and didn't realize it. The people around me were talking about what happened to me in hushed tones and shaking their heads, stroking me and saying how sorry they were. My, but it hurt so badly.

Because I threw up, they needed to get an MRI. I lay inside, trying not to throw up, and crying. So much of this crying! I was alone, in a dirty foreign hospital, bruised, bleeding, with no money and no papers, and the self pity I felt in that moment, magnified by the mental haze, was shocking in its strength. I swear, the thing had arms and legs.

When they wheeled me out of the MRI room, Vivian was there, with her son and Dan, the Slovenian. I'm afraid I scared little Rauli a bit, vomiting as I was into a trashcan on my lap, but I tried to smile and reassure him that I was okay. I was massively relieved that they were there. By now, the doctors had called one of Esther's friends back in Ciudad del Este, whose number was the only remaining thing in my bag. They put me in bed and gave me an IV, and one of the nurses came up to me with a cell phone. She had given Silvi her cell phone number, and the onslaught of calls had begun.

Esther's friend wanted to come and get me. She said she could get on a bus and be there by four in the morning. But I told her no; I didn't want her to sit on a bus for five hours two days in a row. But I must have sounded terrible, because she called back a half hour later and said she was coming. Later she told me that I had thanked her profusely, and said how much I wanted her to come, though I don't remember that.

They wanted me to stay overnight in the hospital. I couldn't bear the thought. There was a child screaming in the bed next to me, the place smelled of blood and urine. Vivian convinced them to let me go, but I had to sign something saying that if I threw up again, or had head pain or nausea, I would come back. They presented me with a bill, that amounted to about $40 (for x-rays and an MRI! unbelievable!), and that I wasn't even required to pay.

When I left the hospital, held up by Vivian on one side and Dan on the other, there was a swarm of reporters and television cameras waiting for me outside. Vivian explained what happened, and I answered as many questions as my Spanish would allow, and we went home, where I showered, cried some more, and called my parents to make sure I wasn't going to die, something I do at least once in every country I go to. They were, understandably, beside themselves with worry. I did the best I could to reassure them, and went to bed.

That's enough for now, Thanksgiving preparations are calling.

1 comment:

Jef said...

Sweet merciful crap, Becky - I'm sorry I gave you any guilt about not writing. However, now - it seems - you have more to write about. However shitty, a life experience is a life experience.

Happy Thanksgiving - call me if you get a chance, I'll be doing a traditional Thanksgiving Day bathroom cleaning.