Saturday, December 27

Grasp 2

Paraguay has been described as an improvised country, which seems to be pretty accurate. After a long string of dictators, they tend to be quite suspicious of authority in any form. Though currently, their democratically elected president is a former priest and overall nice guy, so hopefully things will improve.

Another example of their difficult past is that, a bit more than 100 years ago, 90% of the population was killed or executed after losing a war with Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil. They also lost 75% of their territory, and obviously ceased to be a major regional power.

Today, the language of the middle and upper class is Spanish, but everyone speaks Guarani, a native language which is the mother tongue of the lower class. Many people that I met could barely speak Spanish.

Taking a bus to Asuncion, the capital city, was another example of how chaotic things can be. At every stop, some people would come on the bus selling everything from pastries to balloons for children. Many people make a living by roaming the streets, selling whatever they can. You buy what comes your way, as the prices are lower than in shops.

In Asuncion, things can be even crazier. The markets are something to behold, as they stretch for many blocks, and have no order to them at all. The shopkeepers are very aggressive, and the girls who work there come up to when you walk by, rubbing your arm and asking you (in a very suggestive tone) what you're looking for. To find something in particular, you either need someone with you who knows that particular market, or you need enough luck to find it by chance.

Also, it would be a very difficult place to get around not speaking Spanish, as hardly anyone speaks English, and prices are hardly ever marked. Meaning that no matter who you are, you have to have an idea of what things are worth before going shopping, or you'll end up having your pants pulled down over the price. Particularly if you're a foreigner.

One of the most interesting parts of Asuncion is the trade fairs, which are much smaller than the markets, and specialize in crafts and other traditional hand-made decorations. It's amazing how intricate some of the designs are, and how little they cost. A piece of cloth that took someone a month to weave might sell for as little as $10.

Luckily, I had people to show me around the whole time I was there. I stayed with Malvi, who lives just outside of Asuncion in San Lorenzo. She was very kind and showed me around the whole region, from hectic Asuncion to the quieter villages a few kilometers away, such as Altos and San Bernadino. I also met Rocio, who studies history at the local university, and explained a great deal of what happened over the last couple of centuries in Paraguay.

After leaving the Asuncion area, I headed to the extremely isolated west of the country. There are hardly any tourists, and only a few villages, most of which settled by German Mennonites a few generations ago. The contrast of day-to-day life was quite striking. The Germans have maintained their language and their trademark efficiency, having built a community in one of the least hospitable regions of a relatively poor country up to a point where their towns have a similar standard of living to certain areas of Europe. At the same time, you can tell that they are used to isolation, as although some are very friendly, many can be rather rude, ignoring you when you talk to them or just answering you with a grunt.

The heat in the region is absolutely incredible. It topped 45 degrees at one point. It's hard to describe. Like a warm globe enveloping your whole body. When you have to walk anywhere, it's important to go slowly, or you may pass out. Plus, it's necessary to carry water on you at all times. There's a certain sort of insect indigenous to the area that's something like a cricket, but much louder, and which chirps incessantly at all times. They're everywhere. You can really get the feeling that you're in a different world.

The Mennonites of the region feel a very strong connection to Canada. Their history in a nutshell is that they were originally expelled from Germany over 300 years ago, and found refuge for several centuries in Russia. Yet when Stalin came to power, they were again forced to flee, and the original destination was Canada. Unfortunately, immigration laws had recently been tightened due to the Great Depression, and only the fit and able-bodied were accepted by the Canadian government. So although many still settled in various regions of Canada, others had to look for another answer. Paraguay was chosen, as it was one of the few countries offering them both land and the possibility to bring whoever they liked, in particular the sick and elderly. As a consequence, many of the Paraguayan Mennonites have family in Canada, and in some cases, even have Canadian citizenship.

A darker side of their history is that it was also a destination of choice for Nazis fleeing prosecution in Europe. I wasn't able to find out exactly how much influence they had over the community, as it's not the sort of thing you can safely bring up in conversation with a local person. One thing that I did find rather shocking was some of the material for sale in a local bookshop. Some comics for children dealt with religious matter in a very disturbing way, equating Catholics, Nazis, and members of the KKK. Apparently, the last Pope will be the Antichrist. I wish that I'd had more time to dig around the shop, but the shop keeper was giving me strange looks, so it seemed better to quietly exit. Getting on their bad side, considering that it really is the middle of nowhere, would have been a bad idea.

Getting from western Paraguay back to Argentina was also a bit of a challenge. There are no direct roads to the northwestern region of Argentina. There are buses that cover the route through Bolivia, but they only go at 2 in the morning. As a consequence, I had a 6 hour stop-over in a small, mostly aboriginal village after catching a local bus from the regional capital, Filidelfia. There really wasn't much to do, but I found a small canteen where a few of the locals had gathered, drinking beer and playing volleyball on a court to the side. It was all somehow a bit surreal, as the idea of watching a group of aboriginal Paraguayan men, joined by an local ethnic German girl, all speaking Guarani, playing volleyball in the dark, was not exactly how I expected to spend the evening. They spoke a bit of Spanish, and so we were able to communicate somewhat, but the conversation couldn't get much beyond where I was from and how in the hell I had found my way to their part of the world. Several of them tried to talk me into staying, and offered to let me sleep at their houses.

Something that I find fascinating is that they have only been sedentary for a few generations. As recently as 1975, many were still hunters/gatherers, roaming the land dressed in hides. Yet as they say, 'Once you've tasted bread, you can never go back to the bush'.

There was no bus station per se, and as most people never go to Bolivia, none of the locals could agree on the best place to catch it. Since customs for the border is located in the town (though the border is a few hundred kilometers away), it seemed as good of a place as any to wait for it. Apparently Bolivia and Paraguay are still on bad terms due to a territorial war 80 years ago, of which Paraguay mostly won. As a consequence there isn't much traffic to speak of on the (dirt) road connecting them, and so figuring out how to go from one country to the other is a bit difficult.


Blogger dahlia said...

Hey Ian... just wanted to say that I read your blog from time to time and it's always really interesting, very thoughtful and incisive. One of my flatmates here in london is from paraguay and it's always hard to get an idea of what it's actually like there (particularly because he must have come from one of the richest families there, being able to afford london). Funny thing about him as well is that he's called gunther... his grandfather immigrated to paraguay from germany. We don't really discuss it...


5:51 a.m.  

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