In the city of Foz do Iguacu, Brazil, there is a restaurant called the Rafain. Every night after dinner they do a show that exhibits the culture and music of Latin America. They do Mexico; they sing “Cielto Lindo” which all Norte Americanos of a certain age recognize as the Frito Bandito song. They do folk music from Peru. When the audience is all warmed up- — they do the Tango.
If you’ve never seen the Tango, let me say that it’s probably the reason Baptists don’t dance. It is very much a vertical expression of a horizontal idea. It is not done just with the feet or just with the limbs, but the whole body. Even the eyes are involved as the dancers glance back and forth, looking at each other, wooing each other, caressing each other with their eyes.
As the music plays, the limbs of man and woman are intertwined, coming ever so close but never really touching in the way the glances would desire.
The tango, while definitely a south-of-the-border dance in many, many ways, engages the mind as well. In addition, it serves as a metaphor for the traffic in Asuncion, Paraguay.
I recently got back from a trip I took to Paraguay. Last year I was named the director of PSU in Paraguay program, so over spring break Alice Sagehorn, who created the program, was kind enough to go down with a group of us to make the correct introductions.
Paraguay is an exciting place: 48 percent of the population — nearly half — is below the age of 24. You walk down the street and say to yourself, these people are young.
That much youth means things can change very quickly. Seeds planted within the culture now can be brought to fruit within a generation and yield a great harvest.
Not only are there a lot of young people, but they are brilliant and ripe for what PSU is offering in terms of education.
Why do I say they are brilliant? Because if they weren’t, they would never be able to make it through the traffic in Asunción alive.
We had a driver. I would never be without a driver there, and why would I when you can have a driver and a car for $50 a day? To appreciate the traffic, you have to know that — because of the great rate of change — Paraguay has three centuries going on at the same time. On the street there are modern, expensive SUVs; motorcycles; and the occasional horse cart. (The number of horse carts has decreased since I was there in 2009, but there are still a few.)
Along the medians of the larger streets, there are merchants with bags of fruit, flowers, and squidgies to clean your windshield. It is capitalism in its purest form. They have something you want; you have money which they want; you exchange one for the other and everybody is happier. This is all done in the space of time it requires for the light to change.
Everybody has a cell phone and there is better cell phone coverage in the rural areas there than there is in my living room here in Pittsburg; and, yes, they are all talking on the cell phones while they are driving. It is less scary that paying attention to it, I suppose.
The lanes are marked with white lines just as they are here, but they are interpreted differently. They are suggestions. They can be used to separate lanes of traffic, but they are also handy to straddle, creating an extra lane in times of need.
You can always pass. Always. If there is a car, bus, or truck in that other lane, passing must be done with care, but if it is just a motorcycle, he can get out of your way. He will because he’s smart, alert, and wants to live.
The traffic weaves itself together; the cars are like the arms and legs of dancers doing the tango. They come dangerously close, but don’t touch.
Being with our driver was at times like watching an Indiana Jones movie. We knew that in spite of all indications to the contrary that we were all going to come out of it alive, but we didn’t know how until it was over.
I feel the same way about the story of Paraguay. I believe it is going to come out well. Like the tango, the pleasure will be in seeing how it happens.
(Bobby Winters, a native of Harden City, Oklahoma, is Assistant Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and Professor of Mathematics at Pittsburg State University. He blogs at redneckmath.blogspot.com and okieinexile.blogspot.com. You may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)