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Any ‘Guay You Want It – Asuncion, Paraguay

Any ‘Guay You Want It

Paraguay

La Panteón de Los Heroes - Asuncións most famous landmark
La Panteón de Los Heroes – Asuncións most famous landmark
“Why do you want to go there?” they’d all ask, a look of utter amazement and slight revulsion steadily growing across their faces, as if I had just mentioned dropping by Teheran on a Sunday afternoon. In all honesty, though, I savored the reactions induced from my suggestion of visiting Paraguay, a landlocked, little-known country on the northern border of Argentina, where I had been living for the past six months. Precisely because so many people, both Argentines and foreigners alike, had such little interest in this country. Argentina, Peru, Chile and Ecuador let Americans in for free. Brazil requires a special visa, but the land of capirhinas and thong bikinis can get away with levying a tourist tax. But Paraguay? The idea that this country – which could most certainly stand to benefit from any influx of dollars – would consciously make it more difficult for tourists to enter seemed to defy logic.

I would soon discover that ordinary regard for convention scarcely had a place in this South American country, save for its de rigueur encounter with brutal military rule. In tragic but typical Paraguayan fashion, the country is perhaps most distinguished for having South America’s longest running dictatorship. General Alfredo Stroessner ruled from 1954-1989. Paraguay is also South America’s third poorest country and, according to Transparency International, one of the most corrupt countries in the world, in the same league as bastions of duplicity Somalia, Pakistan, Sudan and Tajikstan.

Eighteen hours after leaving Buenos Aires’s Retiro bus station, I arrived in the dilapidated Argentine border town of Clorinda to clear customs. Similar to U.S. cities dotting the Mexican border, the northern part of Argentina that borders Bolivia and Paraguay has far more in common with its neighbors than many of the towns within its own country. While it comprises the highest proportion of European descendants of any South American country, Argentina gently gives way to greater and greater indigenous Amerindian influence the farther north of Buenos Aires you get. I cleared customs without a hitch and was back on the bus, to Nuestra Señora de la Asunción.

After my arrival, I jumped into a taxi heading downtown to find a place to stay. While dropping 60,000 units of a currency on a hotel room could easily imply unbridled luxury, in Paraguay, this amount of Guaraní translates to $10.00 U.S. Though the Hotel Miami, which sits just blocks away from the main sites, is no Ritz-Carlton, it was just as the woman in the tourist office assured me – super limpio, super clean, so I was happy enough.

I left my bags in the room and changed into what would become my standard Paraguayan adventurer’s outfit: ragged jeans, a faded, solid grey T-shirt, and the application of enough bug spray to merit my body an EPA-mandated Superfund. I had done a bit of research before I left and learned that malaria and yellow fever weren’t supposed to be present where I was going. This did little to reassure me. In addition, I was sporting a scraggly, month-long beard and a head of unruly hair. In truth I probably succumbed to the admonitions from those back in Buenos Aires who strongly discouraged my trip to Asunción on the grounds of being unsafe. As it turned out, I found the city to be no dodgier than Buenos Aires or any major American city, but I was traveling alone so I wanted to put on my mean face.

Being right downtown, the hotel was only a 10-minute walk from the heart of the city’s cultural district. I passed by the city’s most famous landmark, the regally guarded tomb of Paraguay’s more munificent leaders and war heroes known as the Panteón de Los Heroes. I continued to the Cabildo, the old Congress building that sits on the banks of the coffee-colored Paraná River, the same river that runs to Buenos Aires and marks the frontier with Argentina. Inside the Cabildo is a small but impressive museum showcasing Paraguayan artwork, from pre-Columbian Guaraní Indian works to a small collection of modern paintings.

While many of the exhibits were striking, what I’ll most remember about the Cabildo is its location. It’s next door to one of the city’s most prominent shantytowns, La Chacarita. I waltzed around the museum, debating the merits of post-modernism when suddenly, the large windows in the side of the museum opened practically into the slum sitting 15 feet away.

Modern Paraguayan artwork on display at the Cabildo
Modern Paraguayan artwork on display at the Cabildo
La Chacarita is notable for two reasons. It was particularly dire, significantly more so than any comparable shantytown, known as villas that I’d seen in Argentina. It is located next to the ex-Congress building, across the yard from the glistening white President’s palace, a lavish, marble structure modeled on Versailles, and it is within easy, viewing distance of the superfluously modern new legislature building, completed in 2001 at the not-so-low cost of $20 million dollars.

Why was I so surprised at the contrast? After all, this was Latin America, notorious for its divide between rich and poor. The scene exemplified the difference between the United States and this country. One can easily insulate and delude himself into thinking that poverty doesn’t exist in the U.S. In Latin America, there’s no escape; poverty is everywhere.

Leaving the Cabildo I spotted a delivery vehicle for the local newspaper, La Ultima Hora, The Final Hour. On both sides of the white vehicle was the paper’s slogan, conspicuously displayed in sharp black lettering: Lee la Verdad, Read the Truth. Media honesty is far from automatically presupposed in these parts, and as such, it must be specially touted as a sort of premium. Paraguayans are hardly to blame for this, having spent the vast majority of their recent history under the thumb of crazed despots. Francisco Lopez for one drafted children to fight in his futile war against neighboring giants Argentina and Brazil in the late 1800s. Later Stroessner, who, according to some around here, actually may have made Chile’s longtime dictator, Augusto Pinochet, seem like a high school bully.

The essence of Paraguay escapes me. I’m left with no answers and hundreds of questions. The only definitive label is that is that it has no label. Almost every facet of its visible culture is some sort of eccentricity. Take, for example, the staple food, known as Sopa Paraguaya, Paraguayan Soup. Made of cornmeal and eaten with fork and knife, this food is about as soupy as an English biscuit. Or, consider the Paraguayan flag, the only flag with two different sides. Still, I saw more Mercedes-Benz in Asunción than in any other city, Berlin included. Think about the city outside Asunción known as Villa Hayes, Hayes Town, named in honor of obscure former U.S. President, Rutherford B. Hayes, because of his support of Paraguayan land claims in the war against Argentina and Brazil.

In Asunción, the price is right whether you love it or hate it. On my first day I ate at a place where you pay by weight. I received under a ½ kilo of food, a bottle of water and a bottle of the local soft-drink, Simba, for 11,300 Guaranis, fewer than two dollars. A good three-course dinner costs under three dollars, while cover at the most exclusive club in town, Coyote, set me back 30,000 Guaranis, five dollars – the 5,000 Guaraní bar drinks more than made up for it. Here it is possible to be transplanted from the real Asunción, where foreign names like Swarovski and Lacoste replace familiar Spanish ones.

After my long weekend I took the bus to Encarnación, a city in the most southern part of the country that is a launching pad for famous Jesuit ruins, Trinidad and Jesús. The six-hour bus ride to Encarnación was scarcely any different than riding around on the bone-jarring intercity buses in Asunción. Every few minutes the driver would stop and let on some more passengers, who’d pay him on the spot and sit down on a seat, or stand in the aisle, if no seats were available. Something told me his boss wasn’t seeing the extra profit. If more passengers weren’t getting on the bus, determined vendors aggressively hawked soft drinks, candy and lottery tickets. They walked the aisle, popped off the bus, then jumped on the next one heading in the direction they just came from. This continued, for the entire trip, as if we had been traveling from one end of a city to the next.

The Jesuit Ruins at Trinidád
The Jesuit Ruins at Trinidád
Encarnación surprised me. It has a rather diverse population. While Paraguay is considered one of the most homogenous countries in South America with around 95% of its population of mixed Guaraní-Indian and Spanish descent, it has substantial and highly influential groups of Germans, Japanese and Arabs, in addition to a smattering of Eastern Europeans and Jews. Also Encarnación is more, tranquilo than the hustle and bustle of Asunción, Paraguay’s own New York City. It’s a nice town to spend a day or two. I used it as the base to explore the Jesuit ruins at Trinidad, perhaps the least-visited UNESCO World Heritage Site. It can be reached after a 40-minute trip on a bus plastered with signs proclaiming that “to ride the bus is to acknowledge that Jesus has blessed it”.

A week after my cautious arrival in Asunción, I crossed the bridge separating Encarnación from Posadas, Argentina. I realized I’d really grown to appreciate the country. The place proved to be an exceptional cure for the banality that increasingly began to characterize my life in South America. If Argentina is the darling of South America – pretty and popular but perhaps leaving you a bit unsatisfied – Paraguay is just the fix. All attempts at understanding this most enigmatic of places, I discovered, are an exercise in futility that can only result in frustration. Perhaps this is precisely what makes it so great – the splendid chaos it is that provides a much needed reprieve from all that is ordered, logical, and ultimately, boring.

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