Yesterday I went to visit Meredith, my fellow Global Health grad student, at her field site in San Lorenzo. (I mentioned Meredith earlier in my ‘Preparations‘ post.)
San Lorenzo, a city contiguous with Asuncion, is known for the very large market in its city center. The city has 50 barrios (residential areas) that sprawl out from the center, leaving the residents furthest out far from the market and often without another decent source for food. We call areas like this a ‘food desert‘ because there is little or no access to enough quality food to meet the needs of its residents. Meredith is studying how people in these ‘food deserts’ cope with the food insecurity they face. You can read more about her research here.
I rode out to San Lorenzo on a bus, which was in itself an interesting experience. The buses here are privately owned and bus owners/drivers form cooperatives to operate particular routes. There are no formal bus stops, you just waive the bus down from somewhere along the route. I’m used to people trying to sell me stuff when I’m on a bus in developing parts of the world, but yesterday’s experience was a first. A person would stand up at the front of the bus and give a prepared speech about what they were selling (or a plea for some kind of donation). The first salesman to get on the bus was trying to sell water softener! (Quirky, but I think the very large kitchen knife that someone tried to sell me on a bus in Zambia is still the winner.)
I met Meredith a couple of blocks from her apartment in downtown San Lorenzo, and then we took a second bus ride (much shorter) to the barrio where she’s doing her study.
This is a picture of a house in a relatively nice part of the barrio – but it’s located in a villa, and the land is not owned by the tenants. They pay the landowner (a person, or perhaps the power company) some rent every month to have their house on a small plot of land and the ability to ‘illegally’ run a cable into the landowner’s electrical grid. Most of the people in the villa try to make a living collecting plastic bottles and selling them to the recycling plant. They also do other small things to try and make ends meet, like occasional domestic work or selling something (like the carbon (coal) advertised in the picture above). It’s hard to make a living that way, and there were a lot of abandoned houses in the barrio.
Meredith took me around to some of the despensas in the barrio, which are kind of like corner stores. Every day someone from the despensa goes up to the main market downtown and brings food back to resell in the barrio. The size of the despensa and the diversity and quality of food varied.
We then went back downtown to check out the open air market. It was really big, about 2 x 5 blocks in area. The food looked like it was of better quality and cheaper than what I’ve seen in supermarkets in Asuncion. You could get anything you wanted there. We stopped in at a ferreteria (like a hardware store) so I could buy a brasera – which is a little iron stand that you use to cook with coals when you’re outdoors – for when I head to the Chaco. I’ll take a picture of it in action when I get there.