Thursday, January 8, 2015

Craft Beers and Caballos

Welp, I'm back in Asuncion.

(*sigh*) It's hot.

While eating a somewhat crappy meal at the local TGI Friday's last night (boy's choice for least Wednesday is 3-for-1 drink night and they had a decent, if weak, mojito), my wife remarked "it feels like we never left." That's because this is our home...our second home, sure, but a place where we live and work and shop for groceries and take our kid to daycare. If our family or friends ever came to visit (a highly unlikely prospect) it would be us showing them around town, playing the role of tour guide...even though we are hardly "locals." But for whatever remains of our stint here, we have become a part of the fabric of Paraguay. Such is life.

Spent the last few days in Valle de Bravo in Mexico. Most of you probably haven't heard of it...there was an okay article on it in the NY Times the other day, comparing it to "the Hamptons" of Mexico City. Personally I find the comparison to be wildly inaccurate. Instead, I'd say it's a lot like Orcas Island (save that it is an inland lake community rather than an island), though the downtown area is bigger than East Sound. And the ongoing (residential) development is different from Orcas (where anyone building a house is doing it out in the woods, down a private road, away from prying eyes). Maybe more like Bend (Oregon) or Lake Chelan...but the climate and greenery was very much like the San Juan Islands. It had that "hippy islander" kind of feeling to it.

Except that the lake in Valle is man-made (from damming a river) rather than natural.

Our friends (who are currently renting a house there) are enjoying it immensely, and seem on the verge of a permanent move to "island life." This is not a weekend retreat for is a complete retreat from the stress and urban life of Mexico City. Their teenage children are going to hippy-ish prep schools away from the sex, drugs, and trouble that occupies the lives of their City schools...though I'm sure there are plenty of Valle kids minoring in marijuana while taking courses in "paddle board" and "macrobiotic nutrition." But it's still an escape to a peaceful, natural where you can walk or bicycle without fear of...well, without fear.

Having even a small amount of wealth in Mexico is a double-edged sword. You become a target. Carlos at age 46 has achieved a degree of success over the years by owning and running a couple small store fronts that deal-in high end (i.e. American) electronics of a very recognizable brand. He studied computer systems in school, speaks English, and is equal parts sharp-witted and gregarious. Even though there the products he sells are expensive by Mexico standards, there are people in Mexico City that have the money to buy them and are willing to do so if it means getting top flight American goods (without flying to San Antonio). He provides a pretty good standard of living for his family of four.

But in addition to robbery, shake-downs and extortion rackets (not to mention needing to be on guard against internal employee theft), you face very real, physical danger. A few years ago, Carlos was kidnapped right in front of his house; forced into a car at gunpoint and driven away from his neighborhood within sight of his driveway. He escaped his kidnappers by diving out of the speeding vehicle, tearing up his arm pretty good in the process...but that's better than having pieces of your body cut off and mailed to your family so they'll drain your bank accounts.

You pay a premium price in Mexico if you want to enjoy the same type of security that folks in the United States enjoy. Sure, the uber-wealthy in all countries live in walled fortresses with private security and bodyguards...but average American Joe is usually pretty safe to walk the streets, even in "bad neighborhoods," so long as you look halfway alert and not like fresh meat. The same can't be said in Mexico...even in "good neighborhoods." It's sad because other than the crime (and the lack of respect/faith in law enforcement), there is a lot to recommend Mexico as a great place to live and raise a family.

ANYway...Carl has reached a point in his life where he doesn't need to be in the city anyway. He's renting out his businesses, and working on his new passion: craft beer. Well, that and writing (he writes short stories, most recently of the noir detective genre, though SciFi in the past), but that's something personal, for him. The beer thing...well, yes, he enjoys drinking beer but he doesn't like drinking alone. Beer is for sharing. And being good at what he does, and being of an entrepreneurial spirit the guy has already got his bottles in three restaurants in Valle. He's actually run out of beer and has to get a new batch brewed to fill his orders...but all his brewing stuff is still in Mexico City. He wants to move the equipment out to Valle, but first he needs a place to set up shop. Such are the challenges when you place well at a national craft beer festival.

[the Mexican craft beer movement is a few years behind the USA...Carlos reckons about eight, but I think it's more like double, especially compared to places like Seattle. Part of the problem is the monopoly on hops possessed by the giant beer corporations of Mexico...all ingredients need to be brought in from outside the country, unless you want to buy some farmland and figure out how to grow your own...of course, there's the additional problem of hops only growing in particular climates of northern latitude. But like I said, the area around Valle is very similar to the Pac NW...even getting under 50 degrees (positively cool) while we were there]

Monday, I spent the day riding a horse through wooded mountains in order to see the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary just outside of Valle de Bravo (you can hike there if you like, but it takes a lot longer...vehicles aren't allowed up the mountain). I'm not much of a horseman...the last time I sat a horse I was probably 10 or 12 years old...and trotting up the side of a mountain on a crumbling dirt trail made for a harrowing excursion. Especially with a baby strapped to my chest, as I had to use one hand to cradle her head the whole time (she did not appreciate the bouncing on the way up, but managed to fall asleep on the way down). Still, it was a neat experience...even if butterflies (to me) are just big bugs (thus "icky"), seeing the thousands of them fluttering around the treetops was worth the hike. A couple of Monarchs landed on Carlos, which is considered lucky...but then Carlos has always been a lucky guy. I'm glad we had the chance to see it.

But now we're back in PY...had to fly to north to Miami in order to get here since there's no direct flights from Mexico. After a day to recover (more or less), I'm back on my laptop and...well, I find myself thinking a bit about my conversations with Carlos (over his craft beer). Discussions about Paraguay...what it's like, what I've learned, what I'm likely to "take with me" when I move back to Seattle. About maybe blogging about my time here and my (American) perspective on this part of the world. I'm definitely going to be in Paraguay for least another six months and maybe longer. Some folks might find my experiences interesting reading...if not particularly "insightful." For me, it would be easier to start a blog on the subject than keep a journal. I've always been shitty at journal writing.

Let's just say I'm considering the idea.

My migrations cover more ground than THIS bug.


  1. Good post, JB - Sorry you're there for 6 to more months. The crime thing and the kidnapping, yikes. That's scary shit.

    The blog/journal thing sounds like a good idea and after reading this entire post, yeah, that's right I read it all.

    The last question I have was, what crappy meal did you eat at TGIF's?


    1. Crime in Mexico is a lot different from (and scarier than) crime in Paraguay. It's the damn drug cartels that give money (and power) to the disenfranchised/impoverished people living in the shadow of wealth found at the top of the Mexican food chain (and their neighbors over the northern border).

      "Crime" in Paraguay is generally limited to robbery/mugging (downtown at night). The main crime however is the displacement of poor farmers by large (corporate) landowners with private security (armed dudes).

      Though some might consider the Paraguayan palette a crime against flavor. TGIF is not what I call "good food" in general, but the burger my wife ate gave her some stomach issues (and mine was pretty bad, too) even after we sent it back to have the bacon cooked. My son skipped most of the chicken fingers on his plate in favor of french fries. Pretty bland stuff.

    2. This is interesting stuff, I and I look forward to reading more.

      Burgers out and raw bacon. Ick.

  2. PS: I like that you're blogging more, too.

  3. I'm also interested in the foods you have near you, or what you don't have near you. But I understand what you were saying before about not doing that kind of post.

    Still, super interesting.

  4. I had a friend from columbia who kept trying to get me to go there on one of her visits back home in the early 90's, her family owned a small chain of small department stores and was still really just middle class and she'd say "oh don't worry about crime or getting kidnapped our bodyguards are pretty good a few are even remote cousins"...the general safety of most of the U.S. really is something most americans take for granted.

  5. I know that I should really have paid attention to the crime and kidnapping section of this post, but I'm honestly still having a hard time wrapping my mind around that fact that there is a TGI Friday's in Paraguay.