Just Another Day in Paraguay
Horqueta, Paraguay, South America
Elder Hill meekly trudged down the hill through the eclectic assortment of tiny huts and fenced in one-room brick houses. I, too, trudged. I didn’t possess the energy necessary to do much else. The darkness had descended on us an hour earlier and with it the cool humidity of winter. Elder Hill did his trudging a step or two ahead of me all the way down the hill. I didn’t mind it though; he was still pretty green.
As we reached the bottom of the hill, the path we followed widened and opened up on the right to a wide Paraguayan street. “Wide Paraguayan street” is an oxymoron if the truth were known. The width of the thoroughfare exceeded twenty meters, so wide is semi-accurate; however, the only indication that a vehicle could traverse this real estate was the deep rutted tire grooves distributed haphazardly and randomly across the entire width of the street. Street is also an awkward noun to use in Paraguay, for it conjures up images of stop signs and sidewalks and streetlights and pavement. No, this street was more of an open field between two lines of fenced-in shacks, with cows and horses and chickens roaming freely between the compost heaps and the soccer balls. The wide street isn’t, therefore, a very accurate description, but, the adjective, Paraguayan, fits it to a tee. Lapacho trees lined both sides of the thoroughfare with an occasional mango tree mixed in for variety. Semi-naked children cavorted happily amidst the farm animals, and young couples and drunks ambled quietly from house to house. Paraguayan, indeed.
Elder Hill and I had endured a typically grueling day of missionary work. We had arranged to visit a few people and talk to them about our religious message, but the timing had somehow gotten confused, and the appointments were frustratingly rescheduled. We then spent a good portion of the day clapping at doors and trying to share our message. Mostly, we just walked and walked. Horqueta only houses about 5000 to 6000 people, and we probably walked by each and every one of their houses that day. By this time, we trudged.
Elder Hill turned into the wide street ahead of me and then looked back anxiously to make sure I was following. He had desperately wanted to share his missionary message all day, and I sensed that if I didn’t make that possible for him, he would be even more devastated. He spoke what can kindly be called broken Spanish, so it was often up to me to initiate conversations and discussions. I noticed a young man on the far side of the street. I had seen him before, perhaps at the bus terminal or the marketplace, I couldn’t really remember, but he always smiled and seemed to know who we were. Without really even thinking, I approached him and started to talk.
“Mba’e la porte?” I enquired in Guarani.
He smiled and responded that he was fine. As the conversation continued, I could tell that Elder Hill was getting more and more excited, so I asked him to share his religious insights when I thought the time was appropriate. As missionaries, we always wanted to explain a religious concept, give a pamphlet or a book, and then arrange a future time to visit. The young man wasn’t altogether interested in our message, but he was courteous and did seem to want the book we had, so I let Elder Hill talk as much as he liked. It was good practice, I thought.
As we chatted with this young man in the middle of the street, we lost track of everything else, and, before I knew it, a jeep angrily honked its horn at us. I glanced back to see two piercing lights boring into us, expecting us to leave immediately. The young man darted off to the opposite side of the street while Elder Hill and I shuffled out of the way to the short side. Elder Hill, still holding the book, seemed upset at the momentary distraction, but I sensed something far more foreboding.
Rather than pass by harmlessly, the jeep revved its engine, and, from behind the piercing lights, an excitedly fierce mumbling spewed forth. We couldn’t understand everything, but we did hear the words “gringo” and “estupido” repeatedly. Our ears strained to make sense of it, but the words were so incomprehensible and slurred we could only understand that they were backed with anger and, yes, a jeep.
The jeep then leaped forward and the wheels turned sharply toward us. The headlights that had pierced us before again found us, and the jeep started to pursue. Incredulously, we again shuffled aside, but the jeep still followed. We sped up our flight, but so did the jeep. I felt like Dennis Weaver as we ran ahead of the jeep. It lunged and leapt and crashed over the ruts and roots and grooves of the street, all the time bearing down on us. “What had we done?” I kept thinking. “What if he runs over us?”
Elder Hill and I finally ducked behind a couple of sturdy seedlings, and the jeep coughed to a standstill like a charging bull thwarted by a fence. Dust billowed up menacingly, and the door of the jeep swung open with purpose. Paraguayans of all shapes and sizes had heard the ruckus and were now lining the streets. After all, the missionaries don’t often get chased down. As a short, stocky figure emerged from behind the still burning lights of the jeep, a murmur of anticipation, excitement, and dread echoed through the growing crowd.
He mumbled loudly and angrily once again. He then stomped toward us. As he approached, the episode became somewhat definable. He was soused. He was a red-faced, slobbering, sweaty drunk of a middle-aged man, and he had been on a bender. It was obvious that he was a man of some stature, however, because he owned a vehicle and his participation in this fracas alone seemed to elicit some excitement amongst the locals. Not sure exactly what I should do, I stood tall and looked right into his eyes. He paid no attention to my courage, however. He just came up to me and shoved me in the chest. Shocked and stunned by his aggressiveness, I just stood there listening to him scream about “gringos”, “Americanos”, and “idiotas”. His shove didn’t have the effect he had hoped for apparently, so he repeated it again and again, each time increasing the force and the aggression. I had to do something. Without even knowing why, the thought that I should defend myself flashed through my mind.
I felt my muscles tighten, and my hand involuntarily clenched into a fist. I picked a spot on his jaw line, and, before I could think, I saw my fist crash into it. In slow motion I saw the man’s head flail to the side and his whole body jerked to his right, pushed there by the force of the punch. His legs buckled beneath him and he began to fall. His body glistened with drunken sweat as he dived into the red dust. As the dust danced in the headlights, I glanced at the whole scene. The Paraguayan onlookers, by now in the hundreds, gasped in perverse delight and whispered anxiously to each other. The drunken man in a heap at my feet, now humiliated and hurt, clutched at his jaw, writhing in pain. Elder Hill, bless his heart, just stood beside me in panic-stricken terror. I, too, just stood there dumbfounded.
In this state of suspended animation, I was jerked back to reality by a haunting sight. The drunk had arisen, and, now more furious than ever, he charged with all his might, fists flying every which way. I sidestepped the initial charge and firmly planted my hands on the back of his shoulders and sent him sprawling again into the dusty street. Not in the least deterred by my deft handiwork, the man again arose and charged to the same result. I was now fairly certain of my physical superiority to this drunken adversary, so as he repeatedly charged, I repeatedly threw him to the ground.
It was beginning to be pathetic, but then he stood, and, rather than charge, he approached me cautiously and with a tinge of respect. He bowed his head humbly, and then, with a quickness I never expected, he reached up and grasped my white shirt right below the collar. I wanted to totally waste him, but for some reason I just let him grab me. He twisted my shirt in his hands and gritted his teeth with all of his remaining machismo.
“Why did you hit me?” he finally asked.
I stood stunned. What kind of question was that?
“Why did you hit me?” he asked again, obviously wanting an answer.
“Because you wouldn’t leave me alone,” I replied matter-of-factly.
“No!” he bellowed. “Why did you hit me?”
I thought my answer was quite accurate, so I repeated it.
“Because you wouldn’t leave me alone.”
“No!” he again screamed, his temper now reaching the boiling point. “Why did you hit me?”
I stuck to my answer, wondering where all this was going.
His eyes turned fire red and, as if I had just cut him with a knife, he yelled out and excruciatingly bitter, “No”. Then, with adrenaline-charged force, he dropped his right hand from my shirt, formed a fist, and swung it forward and upward in to my chin. My head snapped back, and my chin immediately ached. I closed my eyes tightly, and I felt my blood start to race. I had never felt anger quite so intense, so I gritted my teeth and prepared for an ugly war.
As I opened my eyes, however, I was greeted with a smile and a look of total humility. The man, the slobbering drunk, the jeep owner whose cowardice and foolishness had caused me such consternation, dropped both his hands to his side and then stuck out his right hand, not in the form of a fist, but extended like he wanted to shake my hand.
“Tie!” he blurted as his eyes twinkled gaily.
I searched his face for clues to this behavior, but he just stood there dumbly, like a dog waiting for a Frisbee to be thrown. Tie? What did he mean? Was he suggesting that the fight was a tie? He was going to be both participant and judge?
Before I could change my mind, I, too, blurted out the word.
“Tie,” I declared with a noticeable lack of complete understanding.
As the word escaped my mouth, the man grabbed my hand and shook it firmly, then, unexpectedly; he extended both his arms and again firmly grasped me. This time he embraced me in a huge drunken bear hug and repeated his judgment.
As he stumbled back to the jeep, I spun around to make sure Elder Hill hadn’t run for the hills. No, he just stood there in the dusty street trying to piece together the events of the last ten minutes. In our stupor, a young boy neared.
“Hey, gringo,” he began, “I can’t believe you did that. I really can’t believe you just hit the mayor in the side of the head. Wow! The missionary and the mayor.”
Just another day in Paraguay.