The official money in Paraguay is the Guarani. You get over 6,000 (thousand) guarani for one euro. So with 220 euros, you have about 1.5 million. I was an instant millionaire in Asuncion! But my fortune was only worth the minimum wage. On the other hand, I was indeed a real millionaire, from the point of view of the lady in the street selling lottery tickets. With my million and a half in my pocket, I just felt living the life of a millionaire!
As we returned to the apartment on my second evening in Asuncion, my couch surfing host, Princesa, told me that we were in the middle of the red zone of Asuncion. I heard later that sex business is high in Asuncion and in Paraguay in general. “All Asuncion is a red zone” told me a friend a few days later. I was walking on her side, two blocks from the house and then realized that we were surrounded by brothels, one next to the other, and many others in the surroundings. We were a few blocks from the district center, banks, elegant restaurants and bars, a few blocks from the Government Palace and political center, with brothels all around.
On the third evening, Princesa had a meeting with friends and coworkers. I was getting a bit bored in the apartment. Aurélie – the other couch surfer from France – was on the computer, busy as a bee on her blog and emails. I was intrigued by the brothels. I had never been in any before. I went to a few cabarets and eccentric night clubs with a few prostitutes around, but never a latino brothel. I was in the middle of them. The ethnologist in me started to get impatient. What else is to do here, anyway! I did not want to go to get sex. I wanted to discover this universe in all its details. I told Aurélie where I was planning to go and have a drink. I explained to her my interest in talking with the girls and learning about them. I invited her to come with me. After a few moments of hesitation, she finally agreed to join me.
It was 20h00 or 21h00 when we left. My host had pointed out a few brothels just two blocks from the apartment. It was a safe area. We were secure. I was only caring on me what I needed for the evening. We walked down the street two blocks, passed two brothels, turned around the right corner and stopped at one that had dirty blue walls. Three women were standing at the door. “We don’t want sex. We only want to come in, share a few drinks, chat and have fun. Can we come in?” “Yes you can, come in” she answered opening the way. We entered in a long hallway. Back there was an inside patio, with a toilet and the rooms. It was an old Spanish style house, needing a bit of maintenance. We didn’t go that far yet and entered a small room just on the left. That was the bar. They had two sofas, one on the right, the other on the left, two or three wooden chair, a bar and a small table with a small radio cd player. I went to the wooden bar and ordered three beers to share and two whisky and coke for two girls who asked.
Except for a very young one – 20 years old – who was quite pretty, the ladies were in their early and late 30’s, not very attractive and some a bit overweight. There were six or seven of them. A small one, maybe the older in her late 30’s, was very happy to see us there. She was ready to have a great time with the visitors from foreign. She is the one who welcomed us. Her name was Soledad and one could see on her face and in her eyes many years of struggle and loneliness. Her name suited her well. They also called her Sol, shorter for Soledad, but also another name – sun – that also suited her at that moment. Her face was radiant. She was happy indeed. The Princesa – not my host, but another princess – was sitting on the sofa on my left, kind of sitting on her own. She was very young – 20 – and had beautiful eyes and smile. She was being very shy, hiding her teeth so that we could not see that she had lost a front tooth because of an infection. She told me that she was having regular visits to the dentist nearby – 2000 guarani per visit – and soon she will get a bridge. The bridge was not cheap and she was saving for it. I was glad to see that she was taking good care of herself. I liked her right away. She was pretty, small and a bit shy. Hard to resist! And then you had Giselle, Catarina and a few more whose name I can’t remember. Sol would become a good friend, answering honestly my questions and offering me her protection. She was an important figure in her team, maybe the head one. She was definitely a leader. Nancy – la Princesa – became my “enamorada” – my love one – because I gave her a few treats, invited her a few times for lunch and dinner, took her out for a dancing night and was a bit more attentive to her, although I did not have sex with her. It’s part of the romanticism that one can also find deep in the Red Zone. I found it funny to have a Princesa in each universe, just two blocks one from the other.
La Princesa Nancy was next to the radio and became the DJ of the night. She was scanning through the radio stations stopping when finding a good dancing tune. They all shared a few more heavy drinks, we chatted and danced. Aurélie was a good dancer, quite eccentric in some of her moves and we all had a very good laugh. My goal was to find out basic information about their life and to make new friends. The place was really not very busy. The owner, as they called him, came to check if we were all right. He was very friendly and respectful. We spent 2 or 3 hours there. I spent near 30 euros, but I did not mind. I was a millionaire, remember!! I invited Sol y Nancy for lunch the next day. A few were getting drunk. Their whisky and coke was really strong.
When we returned to the house, our host’s guests were gone and she was working on a theater play that she had to write for her school. She had gotten us a bit of the famous Paraguayan herb and Aurélie and I spent the rest of the evening chatting in smoke. I went to bed – a thin mattress on the floor – very late and very exhausted. I fell asleep as soon as I hit the pillow. This would be the rhythm that we would follow all week. When I left Asuncion after 7 days, I was physically exhausted, needing a few days to rest and recover in a calm and quiet place. I also spent twice as much money as I had planned. With the arrival of Aurélie to the apartment, my relationship with Princesa changed drastically. She got closer to the girl and stopped talking to me about herself. Both of them were like adolescents, chatting about men and spending the day on the computer. Aurélie spent time chatting with me when Princesa was busy on the net or working on her projects and we had a very nice time together. But I was a bit bored at the house, listening to them chatting and laughing while I was smoking too many cheap cigarettes on the veranda.
As promised, I returned to the brothel the next day with my French companion and we invited two of the girls for lunch, Sol and Nancy. A third one joined us, uninvited, but I didn’t mind. They took us a block away to a popular restaurant where they eat a few times a week. “I like the chicken on Thursdays” said Sol. They ordered a plate of pasta and chicken and we got the usual French fries and tiny salad. It cost us about 16 Euros all with a large bottle of coke and four bars of chocolate. Aurélie had been making earrings and she offered them a par each. They were delighted. In the following three day, I went a few times to the brothel to have a couple of beers and chat. They were wearing the earrings. I also invited Nancy to a nightclub evening and gave her a bit of cash – 20 Euros – to compensate for her absence from work. I learnt that they charge 40,000 Guarani for a pass, about 6.5 Euros. The girls generally spend the day doing absolutely nothing, waiting for clients. They seat down and chat. Three of them were renting a room at the brothel, paying a monthly rent and all paid a commission to the owner on each pass. “First we give him the money, and then we enter the room” explained Sol. I didn’t learn the exact amount. Most of them said that they went to school until 13 or 14 years old and that they could read and write. But none of them had ever read an entire book, and they had never read anything since they left school. They had to go to a medical checkup every month for blood test and full body check. The use of condom was mandatory. Still, all of them had at least two children or more, all leaving at their parents’ house. A 20 years-old girl had 2, another one – 22 – had four children. All of their incomes were for their children’s needs and education. I doubt that any of them were getting enough clients to earn the minimum wage of 230 Euros per month, 1.5 million. They were wearing simple clothing, although a bit eccentric, colorful and sexy as required for their job, the kind of cloth you get for cheap at the city market. They never got any visit from a social worker and none of them were aware of any possible type of social help or professional formation that they could benefit from. One of them was having a treatment – free of charge – in a rehabilitation center not far from there to get rid of her crack addiction. For what I heard from various people, crack has recently entered the city and quickly over passed the marijuana market. It’s almost impossible to get some herb in Asuncion, while crack is sold everywhere in lower neighborhoods. It’s scary to think that this city which has been very friendly – everyone in shops and on the street would answer our questions kindly – will soon become a crime zone and a dangerous place to walk through at night due to this horrible crack expansion. I hate these crack dealers intensely!
My host Princesa and Aurélie had decided to take a night off and go party wildly. It was a “girl thing” they said, a classic way to tell a guy that he is not invited. So I went dancing with the other Princesa, Nancy. Another girl – Giselle – asked if she could come too. I told her that she could, but that I wouldn’t be able to give her any money, only pay for her food and drinks. And trust me, she got plenty of them! We first went to the Pirate Bar, a pleasant nightclub that someone had recommended me, at walking distance. My two friends were dressed without much eccentricity, like girls that go out dancing. I paid the entry fee – no cover charge for girls – and we got in. Within minutes, a bodyguard came and asked us to leave. I heard that we were not properly dressed for the place. But I think that he knew my two friends and they were unwelcomed here. They reimbursed my entry fee and we left immediately. We stopped a few blocks away at another establishment, a bit less classy, but pleasant and friendly. We forgot instantly about the previous event and I offered dinner to my guests. Then we went dancing in the back area. We partied until 4 in the morning. We just danced and danced all night. Giselle got very drunk. She was drinking whisky and coke non stop until she feel asleep. My dance partner and I had shared a few beers but without excess and none of us were drunk. It was very late when we left the dancing floor. The brothel was locked so I rented a room for a few hours in a hotel that was still quite busy at this time of the night. We had to wait half hour so that our room would get available. A couple was busy there for the moment. The hotel looked all right. I had stayed in worth places. I settled the two girls in the room and decided to leave them there and return to my apartment, just a few blocks away. I was exhausted and did not feel like staying there for 2 or 3 hours. Giselle had collapsed on the bed and was deep asleep. Nancy was staying in the dark, shy. I didn’t want to take advantage of the girl, although my body was screaming for it. In this type of situation, I often hear a voice in my head shouting: “What an idiot!”
I left them and returned to the apartment. Nobody bothered me on the street. It was all deserted. I had no key. I rang the bell and waited. No answer. They were still out partying! I walked to the gas station a block away to phone them. No public phone. I looked around the area and could not find a single telephone. I returned to the house, sat on the step at the iron door and decided to wait for a while. They had to be returning soon. I was on the street at 4h30 sitting at my doorstep, in the middle of Asuncion Red Zone, feeling safe and relax. Nobody bothered me at all. I waited and waited and even fell into a half-sleep state. Then the day light appeared and I stood ready to get a large cup of coffee. I was reaching the first block when I saw my two friends, escorted by two young men, coming back to the house. I was feeling some rage inside for not having a set of keys. I only wanted to go and sleep. I got into bed as soon as she opened the door. It was passed 7h00.
I slept for 3 or 4 hours. I had been a full week in Asuncion. My sleeping pattern was all messed up. I had been out late too much, sleeping too little on an uncomfortable bed. My body needed a serious rest. I was also fed up with the cold, the noise, the stress of the city and the situation, the contamination of the air. I decided not to go to the wedding of my host’s best friend and to spend the night at the apartment resting, so that I could leave early next morning. The girls were going and I imagined that they would be partying all night and return at sunrise, just on time for me to get up. I spent the rest of the day daydreaming on the veranda. The girls spent the day on the Internet. Then they got ready and left by 20h00 to the wedding. I had made and paid for a set of keys. The guy who made the keys walked back with me at the apartment to make sure the keys were working. He was about to close his shop and was a very conscientious professional. I am glad he came as one key needed to be adjusted.
I left the apartment right behind them. They climbed into their taxi and disappeared. I walked down to invite Nancy to dinner. We walked two blocks to another one of these popular restaurants. Others wanted to come. “I just want some private time with my girl friend here.” I replied. I ordered my famous fried potatoes (what else?) and surprisingly so did Nancy. She was very tired, hadn’t slept well and didn’t feel like eating much. We were just getting settled when Sol appeared, then Giselle, then two more girls, chatting, laughing, teasing and having a great time with us. Sol wanted me to take Nancy with me. I thought of how nice it could be to spend a few days with a pretty girl and see how I can motivate her and inspire her to get out of this situation and improve drastically her life. She was the prettiest one of all, with a bit of shyness in her eyes, latino skin and body. She could move very well! Did I tell you that I often hear a voice in my head shouting: “What an idiot!” Not to say that this would of course seriously affect my daily budget. Helping one is great, but what about giving a chance to others… Ha! Will I survive Asuncion’s brothels?
I left her at her door after dinner. She looked as bitten as I was. I was back at the apartment by 21h30. All was nice and quite. I checked my e-mail – Princesa had showed me how to connect, nice! I made a bit of research on Wwoofing in Australia and New Zealand, flights, visas. I’ve been feeling that a project has been building inside of me for the past month and I felt like getting some information. I wanted to sleep early but couldn’t. My sleeping pattern had changed. By midnight I put myself in bed. I couldn’t fall asleep. It took me over an hour to finally collapse into dreams. An hour later I woke up in the middle of a hurricane of noise. The girls were returning with a couple, one of her coworker and friend. They turned the lights on, as if I was not there. I got up, smoked 2 or 3 cigarettes and went back to bed after an hour. Too much noise here! Finally, by 4, they left and everyone went to rest. I programmed myself to wake up early and by 8h30 I was back to reality.
I got myself ready, last coffee for a while and woke up Princesa, as she had requested. She woke up Aurélie, we hugged, wished the best and promised to keep in touch. I was back on the road. “I’ll email you…”
The bus that goes to the bus Terminal stops in front of “my” brothel. I walked there all packed. They had opened the main doors of the bar and it smelt strongly of beer. Two older women were there with a man, a client or business partner, on a sofa that was too small for them. I asked them to wake up Nancy. “She asked me to wake her up before I leave.” Nancy came ten minutes later, waking up. She looked like she had not slept much. “I could go with you” she said, “I could have gone to Europe. But I would miss my friends and I don’t want to miss them.” I gave her a last hug and got into the next bus.
There are many things that one can do in a city like Asuncion. Many that I have done already in many other cities. There are also many types of people that one can meet: artists, executives, educators, social workers, people of middle and high society. They often all share very similar lifestyles in all cities, even among different countries. In Asuncion, I am very happy that I decided to explore something very different and that I had never done. I will always keep a very special place in my heart for these lovely sex workers that I met here and who are my friends. “Don’t worry about anything here” told me Sol the second day, “You are totally safe. We will all make sure that nothing bad ever happen to you. We will protect you.” Here, I was in the safest place in South America.
Back on the road. We were leaving Asuncion. I was in my bus on my way to Villa Florida. It was time to find a place to rest and restore. I was still a millionaire with 1.2 million in my pockets. I was free. I had survived Asuncion’s brothels!