Most people, when you mention travel to South America, think of Rio or Buenos Aires…maybe Cartagena or even Machu Picchu…but, how many of you could locate Asuncion on a map?
It turns out, there’s a reason you can’t – Asuncion is not only hard and expensive to get to, it has zero major tourist attractions, so of course here I am, in all my monolingual English glory, red of face, strong of heart, yet weak of will, waltzing (for the third time in a year) down Avenida Chile, taking in the sights, such as they are, and the smells, such as sometimes I wish they weren’t-and bidding you, my dear readers, a simple hola! from this, the most obscure corner of Latin America.
Now, a reasonable person might ask, why are you there? And I say, “Why do you ask?”, in a way which deepens the mystery even more and, if you’re a woman, makes you want me in a very libidinous way, simply because you can’t stand the fact that El Gringo has refused your inquiries from behind his mirrored shades, or at least that is the way I envision it, and, since this is my story and I am finishing off a bottle of very serviceable Argentine red table wine even as we speak, I am the only one who counts!
As I was saying, I am on the Avenida Chile, and I am approaching the marketplace in the center of town, a place full of trees, clothing, wares, antiques, hookers (some of whom are also antiques) and, of course mate’, the ubiquitous national drink of the country, a customized herbal concoction ground up and dispensed by the street vendor on the spot as you wait for your order to be filled. I have a native guide, a sweet girl named Francesca, to show me the lay of the land today, and we walk through the stalls on the square with utter indifference lest we are attacked as potential targets of opportunity.
We stop, and she shows me a banded-collar shirt ($20), a favorite style of mine, embroidered by hand with a pleasant organic design, and I foolishly say I will purchase it upon my return, not wishing to carry it for the remainder of our tour. I never come back to that spot again.
Paraguay, like most countries, is a land of triumph and tragedy, stupidity and modernity (or do I repeat myself here?), death and…more death. It is languid yet harsh, full of tales of treachery and foolishness. Yet here also heroism blooms: love-even the love of a harlot, is redeemed, and now-today-there is that ultimate crown of value attached to the soil. Yes! There is oil here! Already, the Yankees busy themselves dividing up the mineral rights with the ruling party, and a new era dawns for the nation and its people…or at least the top 1%.
Paraguayans are a beautiful breed, an exotic blend of Guarani Indian and native Spanish Conquistadors (with a little German and even Japanese mixed in) unlike any you’ll find elsewhere on the continent. They possess a nobility of features that is striking and handsome. Long straight black hair frames dark brown eyes on a pale olive skin. Smooth, even features and full lips enhance a long equine nose. They laugh easily and do not tend to trouble themselves over trifles. They are race apart, in a place beyond time and reason, yet they are of the modern world, and seek to embrace that as well.
Frequently, I see signs of Christianity: crosses dangling from mirrors, roadside creches,and people, mostly old, crossing themselves. Yet my guide tells me that she is a proud modern woman who believes Jesus was only a man, after all. It is a country founded by Catholics, educated by Jesuits, and now, endangered by a secular ideology which is, in point of fact, an attack on Western Civilization. But in this respect it hardly differs from the decline elsewhere in the West.
Later, down by the Paraguay River in the 18th century cabilda which is today a museum, I have the chance to handle ancient Guarani Indian artifacts. I am amazed that the curator will allow me to toy with a 17th century wooden folding chair that has been carved from one piece. There are other native artifacts like blow guns, ceremonial robes, etc. The exhibition space is devoted to the victims of the continent-wide 1970’s era Condor program, in which the usual suspects were rounded up and shot by the authorities with help from the good ol’ USA. Francesca tells me that the doors are so tall because the legislators used to ride right into the building on horseback. The walls are massive: whether to defend against invaders or the noonday sun not I cannot say.
We move on to the filthy port facility and my guide is disappointed that there are no tour boats left along the decaying waterfront pier. I look across the brown water to a desultory pueblo on the other side and shrug. I don’t really want to see more of this river.
The walk to the presidential palace is fraught with some danger, since there is a hut city in the parks along the streets. This is new since my last trip here. It seems that a storm came up and flooded the low lying homes along the river. The refugees moved inland until they reached the open spaces of the park and simply began erecting plywood structures, many little more than lean-tos. Most do not even have doors, but many have satellite dishes. Everyone uses Port-A-Potties on the sidewalks surrounding the area. Well, almost everyone, anyway.
Down a side street near the new legislative assembly building I can see large boars rooting through garbage in the gutter. Free-range chickens scurry to avoid children playing soccer in the squares. All of this poverty is depressing, but when we find it, the Presidential Palace is a real beauty modeled after Versailles. Francesca asks if we can go inside, but the guard waves us away, so I snap a few photos and we continue on our journey.
At the railway museum, which is what was once a magnificent train station (the first in South America!), hearkening back to a day and time when Paraguay was a rising regional power, we are able to explore freely. The relatively well-preserved steam engine and cars were built in England and shipped across the Atlantic to Buenos Aires before they came by riverboat to Asuncion. It must have been quite a journey and a major feat just to get them positioned on the track back in those days. I am again astounded that I’m allowed to browse through the old passenger lists and journals that are a part of the museum, and they even let me tap out a signal on the Morse code machine! Everything seems extraordinarily well built. I could imagine that if you had the will to do it you could get everything working again in short order just like the computers in Jurassic Park. It was all made back when England was the world’s premier manufacturing empire, and the sun never set on the British Empire. Now Great Britain doesn’t make anything anymore except digital money, and all of that winds up in the hands of a few ethnic banksters. There’s a lesson in there somewhere I’d imagine.
The Pantheon of Heroes is designed as a miniature of Les Invalides in Paris (French design and influence peaked during the Belle Epoque) and mostly contains war heroes from the 1864 Triple Alliance War . It was fought between Paraguay on one side and Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay on the other, and if this seems extremely inadvisable and one-sided to you, it does to me as well. I would imagine you can guess who lost, but the magnitude of the defeat is stunning. It is estimated that only 28,000 adult men survived the war out of a population of as many as 900,000 at the time. Francesca points to one of the covered caskets in the open mausoleum below us and says; “He shouldn’t be here. He was an asshole.” She is talking about President Lopez, who, in a desperate effort to continue the hopeless fight, painted beards onto boys and pushed them into battle. Of course they were slaughtered. I’m not sure if he thought the beards would give the kids courage or if it helped assuage his guilt when he didn’t see those bright young faces hidden behind their bearded death masks…or maybe he was just an asshole.
Tellingly, the Chaco War was fought over oil in the north, just where it has been rediscovered today. At the time, the USA wrote up a treaty that favored our own business interests, who had ties to the Bolivians, so La Paz was awarded the land where the Gringos thought the oil was. That was true at the time, but new surveys show significant fields on the Paraguayan side. I guess they get the last laugh, but isn’t it striking how we were fighting wars over oil way back in the 1930’s just like we do today? And how 80,000 men had to die only to find out later that both sides eventually got what they wanted?
Anyway, we finish the tour over a good solid lunch, which is to say meat and cheese, which seem to be staples in South America. I don’t think I’ve seen a single piece of fruit since I’ve been here, save at the free hotel breakfasts.
I’ve read that Paraguay has had the fastest growing economy in South America for the last ten years. I struggle to see signs of that, but I don’t know how bad it was back then. I know they once were a thriving nation that was a growing continental power. But wars, greed, and folly destroyed almost all signs of that. I guess that’s just the way the world works, and no country is immune to it- even those that think they are “exceptional”.
Today, I see two Paraguays. There are some brand new buildings in the downtown area with gleaming glassy facades. People like Francesca are making a decent income and have hopes for the future. But I also see that all of the new buildings are banks, military, and government offices, and I have witnessed the corruption here first hand. It makes me wonder if any of that new oil money will ever trickle down to the average Joe who works outside of the government teat. I hope so, because justice cries out for it. It would be nice to come back here and find those old shacks gone, the streets cleared of the trash, and some new apartment buildings going up for the little people.
The odds are against it, but then I always root for the underdogs.