The Awkward, Shy Child – Asuncion, Paraguay

The Awkward, Shy Child

Asunción, Paraguay

La bandera de Paraguay
La bandera de Paraguay
As the TAM 701 flight I had boarded in Cochabamaba, Bolivia, descended down through the heaving, patient clouds and into the realm of Asunción, Paraguay, I got my first glimpse of this unknown, unpopular country through the small plexiglass window adjacent to my economy seat. And what did I see? The principal feature that struck me was the outrageous number of football pitches the length and breadth of the city. It was like a deck of scuffed light-green cards had been thrown flippantly onto the dark green landscape and scattered completely randomly, but everywhere, and of all ages and sizes. It was instantly apparent why they are heading to Germany next year to attend the world cup finals; even though I couldn’t name one of their players. The country is football crazy. The airport was quiet and downbeat and did what it had to do… A theme that would become normal in the day to day doings of Paraguay from there on in.

Asunciòn was just like most other Latin American capitals; the smog, the noise, the traffic, the people, the traders. But something was different, I was sure of it. The taxi journey into the city reminded me of parts of Panama on its western side; small and quiet tree-lined streets, residencial districts settling down for the night as the sun fell, kids walking home with their muddy footballs under their arms, girls waiting miserably at bus-stops with their college books and aching hearts and old-people sitting and watching the wheels go round and round and wondering what could’ve been. The smell of the warm damp air and the feeling of a burst of imminent rain.

Something was different. There were simply no tourists here; well, none of the obvious ones that I could identify anyhow, none of those twenty four hours-a-day zip-off trousers, no-one wearing green sandals with the Brazilian flag motif, no hiking boots, no cameras, no I-Pods, no looking-up at tall buildings, no looking-down at the poor people, no-one pretending not to see the beggars, none of those god-awful free t-shirts they get after completing a bike ride or trek to inform everyone in sight of their wonderful achievement, no white boys with dreadlocks, no white girls with dreadlocks, none of those ugly bright stripey trousers from Peruvian market stalls…Absolutley nothing. It was bliss, it was fantastic and glorious to see, or, not to see, after six months of continuous visual bombardment of it.

There were actually tourists here afterall, I later found out…But they were harder to spot and rarer to find than an honest politician or a backpacker who admits “well, actually, yes I am a tourist.” But they were here. In miniscule numbers; I think I must’ve seen maybe four or five in ten whole days. It was refreshing in its own right and took me back to my days in Cuba when I felt the same rush at not seeing f++king McDonalds outlets and Nike shops swamping and defacing the streets.

The people of Paraguay are a curious thing. Not entirely different in all the different areas across this small country of six million inhabitants. I sensed a somewhat light shyness and ubiquitous down-beatedness among all the people I encountered. Almost sullen. They are an easy-going people. Understated, like the country itself. The girls wear, what appears to be, permanent frowns on their sometimes pretty faces; they try in vain for their eye-brows to meet in the middle but they never will. And this gives them the moody look they wear so well. The men are much of the same disposition; moody, contemplative, quiet, understated. There’s an abundance of blue and green eyes here, coupled with much paler skin than in other countries I have passed through so far. They all share the common love of the ‘mate’- a herbal water-based drink. The drink they carry around with themselves in a flask and their special personal cups and filtered metallic straws, as they think about the day ahead or behind. The kids play quietly, the days pass unnoticed.

Paraguay is not unlike the shy, awkward child in a large family where all the others get the attention; all the other big-brother superstars of Brazil, Argentina, Peru, Ecuador et al. It shrinks into the background unnoticed while all the attention is lavished on the others. It’s moody, maybe even a little hurt. But it has its own unique character which makes me smile inwardly and does great things on its own. It has to. It doesn’t kiss the ass of every or any traveller that passes through it. And it doesn’t care.

Concepción, street art
Concepción, street art
Outside of the capital, the land is of a gorgeous green and flat, flat for miles and miles except for the ocassional gradual rise and fall in topography. The land brings to mind images of Thailand, Vietnam, the Cambodian killing fields, skinny tall trees resembling palm-trees and lush-green plantation, scattered oasis-like watering holes and open fields of horses, cows and sunflowers. It’s beautiful. It’s Paraguay.

There are smaller cities such as Concepciòn, Encarnaciòn and Ciudad Del Este which are worth a vist of anyone’s time here. The guide books tell you to visit the Chaco, the Mennonite communities and the old ruined jesuit missions of the south. I didn’t, I wasn’t interested in the slightest. I came to see the people, the mood, the land, the streets; the real stuff.

I wasn’t disappointed.

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