As mentioned in my last post, we suddenly found ourselves grounded in Asunciόn, capital of the Republic of Paraguay. John felt terribly sick and couldn’t bear to face a five-hour plane flight, so we’d convinced the flight attendants to leave without us and our luggage.
In spite of the sickness and stress, the taxi ride to the hotel was interesting. It was as if we were on a strange new planet, and every detail was potentially unique. Although Paraguay is not so far from Buenos Aires, the climate, geography and fauna were completely different. It was warm and humid here, with those big piled-up clouds sitting on the horizon. The air smelled damp, and to the right of us was a huge green area, Guasu Metropolitan Park, where people were walking and jogging. ‘Guasú’ means ‘large’ in Guaraní, the language of the eponymous people who traditionally live in Paraguay, Uruguay, northern Argentina, southern Brazil and Bolivia. They have given their name to the Paraguayan currency – one guarani is equal to 100 centimos (and 0.000156514 US dollars).
I know something about the history of the country thanks to John’s essay “Paraguay: A Brief History of National Suicide” and the recent podcast on Radio War Nerd where John and Mark interviewed Thomas Whigham, author of The Road to Armageddon: Paraguay Versus the Triple Alliance, 1866-70 . As you may infer from these titles, the history is not necessarily a very happy one. In the War of the Triple Alliance (1864-70), Paraguay fought Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil, and lost at least 50% of its pre-war population and about 30% of its territory. John has always had a soft spot for Paraguayans because of their insanely brave and doomed stand against unbeatable enemies. For that reason, in spite of our current uncomfortable circumstances, one compensation was that we’d get to see a bit of this legendary place.
When John was settled in the hotel room, I set off for a jog, hoping it would help me calm down and that I’d see something of the city. First, I passed the big mall opposite us. It looked remarkably big, shiny and new considering a huge portion of the population is very poor. It looked like any mall, in Milan, Dubai or New York, with the same brands and architectural design. Almost as soon as I’d passed it, I found myself on a narrow little road cobbled with uneven, rather jagged rocks. It was uncomfortable to run on, and can’t have been very good for car tires. I went over to the sidewalk, which was much better. The street was line with tall smooth-barked trees with veinous roots.
At the far corner of the block was a public park with overgrown grass, rusted playground equipment and broken benches. This was more like the run-down city I’d somehow expected. At the same time, the houses seemed pretty wealthy, with tall gates, tidy gardens, shiny windows and attractive courtyards. The roads were in disrepair, with huge potholes and broken traffic lights, but the private houses were beautiful. I saw a few people sitting in chairs on the sidewalk selling tropical fruit—pineapples, papaya, mango and oranges. There were even a couple of tiny cafes, advertising the usual: juice, coffee, empanadas and sandwiches.
Turning right onto the big street Santísimo Sacramento, I saw the Holy Trinity Church, which was built in the nineteenth century but somehow looked older thanks to its big arcade and ancient well. The area past this seemed much humbler than the streets near the big mall. The buildings looked crumbling or closed-up. There was a line of women at a bus stop sitting behind tables topped with thermoses and Tupperware containers. They seemed to be selling something but I didn’t know what.
Further on were the botanical gardens. The traffic was relentless and not about to stop for pedestrians, so it took some concentration to cross over to the park. I walked through the grand entrance which, however, seemed a little run down, and breathed an air that was immediately different. On the streets of the city everything smelled hot, dusty and diesel-soaked. Here, there was complex organic aroma of flowers, saps, grasses, barks and rich wet mud.
The first little garden was called ‘The Lady’s Garden’ and featured a couple of flower beds and a small water feature. I caught a flash of color and saw that a kingfisher was perched on a rock near the water. On a shrub nearby, a bright orange butterfly settled on a flower of the same color.
On the lawn across the road, a group of teenaged boys in football uniforms were stretching, talking seriously and doing pull-ups on monkey bars. Ahead of me, a younger boy was walking up to a grand colonial-era building called the ‘Natural History Museum’. I considered following him in but I was covered in sweat. Instead, I fixated on a big old tree that looked as if it might have been struck by lightning. Indeed, a storm was gathering as I looked at it, and lightning flashed on the horizon.
The next day, John was improving and we’d managed to change the flight date to Lima, so I celebrated by going for a walk towards the historic city centre. I set out along Avenida España. There were very few other pedestrians and I soon saw why; the traffic was very congested and the air was so full of fumes I felt dizzy. I was glad we hadn’t taken a taxi to the centre as we’d considered, because it would have taken about an hour.
The road was lined with businesses, large mansions, churches (including a giant Jehovah’s Witness temple), pharmacies, medical clinics and huge supermarkets. It seemed like an endless strip mall and might have been anywhere. That said, a lot of places were draped with the Paraguayan flag, and I saw several people wearing a flag-pin on their clothes.
The walk seemed to take ages and I felt nowhere near anything that could be called an ‘historical city centre’. Discouraged, as soon as I saw a couple of big old buildings I decided to turn back because it was already dark, my feet were sore and that ominous lightning was cracking the sky. The mystery of Paraguay was still a mystery to me.