Surviving Asunción, Paraguay

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‘As tea is to China and cuckoo clocks are to Switzerland, so weapons are to Paraguay’

 There’s a reason people don’t go to Paraguay. The landscape is beautiful- edging on the Amazonian Pantanal, with thick, untouched jungle to explore in the Pampas. The culture is rich, with most of the country still speaking an indigenous tongue, and the villages of rural Paraguay maintaining intense pride in their heritage. The history is intriguing, the Jesuit ruins near Encarnación being a living reminder of the early colonisers attempts to spread their religion through the wildest of South American countries, a stopping point for Candide in the midst of his journey to El Dorado.

 This in mind, I thought it was strange that virtually no travellers stop here.

 I took the bus from Ciudad del Este, the Paraguayan portion of the Brazil/Argentina/Paraguay border town by Iguazu Falls. The border crossing was easy enough, they don’t have to deal with the high volumes of entering tourists, as they do elsewhere in South America. The bus was loud, filled with Paraguayans returning to Asunción after a day shopping in the cheap shopping malls that Ciudad del Este is known for. It was also incredibly uncomfortable, and at this early stage in my travels I still thought that 6-7 hours on the bus constituted a long journey, so I was fairly bitter about the terrible roads that we jumped along the entire way.

 Arriving in Asunción late at night, the city didn’t feel any more or less safe than any other city I had visited. I took a taxi to Black Cat Hostel, where I was the only guest. They have a number of cats here, which I really enjoyed, but which might be a bit of an irritant if you’re not a cat person. They do rule the roost. So far, so good. I had a bed, and a safe space for the night, no qualms.

I awoke to gunfire, fairly early in the morning. Somewhat disconcertingly, this isn’t something that particularly bothers me. I’ve been travelling for a long time, it’s not an unusual occurrence in many parts of the world. I rolled over to face the window, facing onto the street outside, to have a peak at what was going on outside. The street was shut down, but people appeared to be carrying on with their lives as normal, which indicated to me that there was no great need for concern. My typical rule of thumb is that if the locals don’t think anything is particularly awry, it’s probably not. I underestimated the Paraguayan perception of awry.

 The gunfire continued in intermittent bouts for a fair while longer before I decided it was probably not a random occurrence, and that I should probably try and suss out what was going down. Vitriolic speeches were being spat through megaphones a small distance away, I heard, and I decided that this was probably the root of the upheaval. A crowd gathered in the Plaza de Armas, hoisting signs and flags I couldn’t read, chanting chants I couldn’t understand. The fine lines between safety, the angry crowd and the random slums that fill public spaces in Asunción, were made hazy by the heavy smoke that permeated the hoard. The gunfire was, at this range, deafening. Each shot cut like a punch to the throat. The gunfire stopped being aimed at the sky, the edges of the crowds ran for it, I figured I’d best follow them.

I spent most of the rest of the day trying to find a gringo. Or anybody that could speak a slight bit of English and could tell me what was going on. At this stage of my trip, having only visited Brazil so far, I spoke no Spanish and had no real clue what was going on. Eventually I found an older German man who lived in Paraguay. He told me that the armed protest was a teacher’s strike. Apparently it’s not uncommon for random bursts of violence to break out on a quiet weekday morning. I asked him what would happen, carrying on this way.

‘The city will burn, I guess’, he commented, shrugging.

The massive crowds of the morning dwindled by the afternoon, possibly having retired for a siesta. The city grew warmer and the loitering street vendors relaxed their formerly aggressive sales approach. I passed 3 swastikas painted proudly on shop fronts.

 I returned to the site of the unrest, curious about the atmosphere now that the volatile crowd had dispersed. There was a complex of tents set up, a nylon village framed by flapping flags of striped red, white and blue. In contrast to the swarms of men that had filled the space that morning, children played, running between tents and laughing without cares. Women hung washing and chatted merrily in rapid Guaraní. Men sat and conversed converted. A space that housed a riot now housed a home town.

 The sun set at 5pm, and I thought it best not to wander too far in the dark.

 After a ravishing breakfast of a slice of white bread and raw oats, I set out for a stroll at 10am. Many of the bars were already open, bleating 80s rock songs for the non-existent punters. I walked an hour to the east of my hostel, and then an hour to the west. I found nothing remarkable. Asunción may lack the vibrant architecture and colonial charms of some of her contemporaries, but the walls are instead laden with street art. Though there are many beautiful murals, many of them are marred by scrawled signatures, revolutionary stencils, attention seeking satanic symbology. They include towering depictions of indigenous Paraguayans, adorned in feathers. Paraguay has a proud native history, which past dictators have attempted to crush, forcing marriages between natives and foreigners to create a mestizo society. The country has a famous history of housing one dictator after another.

 One thing I noticed on my walk through the city was how persistent many of the men were. I actually didn’t find this to be much of a problem in South America, with guys mostly leaving you alone once rejected. In Asunción older men would stop their cars to try and chat me up out of the windows. Others leered in the street. I had grown comfortable with the lack of attention that I drew in Brazil, and had to remember to don my meanest face and feign temporary deafness. Not unusual travelling, but always incredibly irritating.

 I like to read other travel blogs about a place before I comment on my experience. Every one I read on Asunción seemed to describe people spending 1 day browsing the local market and banging on to everyone about how they like to get off the beaten track. I met another blogger who told me that I didn’t understand Paraguay and that I shouldn’t even comment on it, as I was too ignorant to the culture to appreciate it. Personally, I think that these perceptions are fairly crap.

 Paraguay is volatile. The people are armed to the teeth and there’s a slum on every corner. There’s constant political unrest, and the people and the land are equally wild. There’s next to no infrastructure, particularly not tourist infrastructure.

 The country may be beautiful, the culture and history may be interesting. Regardless, I was very keen to get out of there and get to the safety of Argentina.

Read about my onward journey to the north of Argentina here!

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