I don’t really know why I wanted to visit Paraguay. In honesty, nobody else did either. In the run-up to the trip, I wasn’t able to find anyone who’d visited before from the UK. I thought I might be able to pick up some more tips from friends in Rio but none of them had ever been either. Indeed, in her 85 years of living in South America my grandmother told me she’d “never heard of anyone going to Paraguay”.
It would be fair to say that Asuncion is hardly on a par with London or New York City in respect of how much there is for a tourist to do. Indeed, I realised that I’d been to nearly all of the recommended “tourist attractions” after just a three hour walk around what can only generous be described as the “city centre”.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed the trip and would certainly come again if the opportunity arose. Prices are extremely low, the local and ex-pat communities are generous to a fault and the city has a pleasant, almost colonial feel to it with its tree-lined avenues, shady squares and plentiful public parks. If you’re looking for somewhere to get away from things, Asuncion is a safe and relaxing bet.
Here are a few impressions of the city…
(The photo above is of the Presidential Palace)
Quality of life
Asuncion is an exceptionally long way from anywhere. With the exception of the eastern city of Ciudade del Este some five miles away on the Brazilian border, it’s fairly isolated with the Argentine capital Buenos Aires taking about 18 hours by road, Rio de Janeiro 22 hours and Montevideo 22 hours.
As such, the type of “border hopping” so many of us have grown used to in Europe where we go for weekends in Brussels, Amsterdam and Berlin is impractical. The city is also relatively poorly served by air, with only a handful of direct flights to major population centres around the continent. There is, for example, no direct flight to Rio de Janeiro.
Despite this isolation, I’d say that the people of Asuncion enjoy a fairly high quality of life. The city is relatively run-down but it’s not dirty. Residential and shopping areas are usually found on tree-lined avenues that provide much-needed shade from the excessive heat, modern shopping malls are popping up all over the city and there’s an impressive array of bars and restaurants to choose from.
One of the most surreal and enjoyable parts of the trip was being invited by a German I met in a bar in the town centre to visit his club, Club Alemane de Asuncion. While I was aware that there had been significant German immigration to South America, it was nevertheless surreal to sit in the baking forty degree heat in a club created for the German community that was decked out in Bayern Munich paraphernalia and had posters up advertising a monthly Oktoberfest theme night.
Church and state
Before coming to Asuncion, I had been warned that the city’s striking Catholic Cathedral was very often closed to visitors. Indeed, when I turned up early in the morning the gates surrounding the church were padlocked and its cloisters had a rather deserted feel about them. Walking by later that day, I spotted an opens side door and decided to seize the opportunity to have a look around. I was the only visitor, apart from a cleaner who turned up just as I was leaving.
There were two things that struck me about the Cathedral.
The first was its simplicity. Visiting many Catholic churches in various parts of the world, I’ve grown used to them being rather opulent and grand in nature, with elaborate frescoes and statues of assorted saints filling every spare inch of wall space. With the exception of wall backing onto the altar, the church felt almost Protestant in its appearance with relatively bare masonry, plain wooden benches and orderly floor tiles. It was nevertheless an incredibly peaceful sanctuary from the burning heat of the midday Paraguayan sun.
The second thing to strike me was the amount of Paraguayan national symbols found on both the façade of the building and inside the church. Aside from Serbia, where the Orthodox Church was been intrinsically linked to the notional Serb ethnicity since the days of the Rastko Nemanjic (later Saint Sava) in the late 1100s, I’ve never seen so many national symbols in a church. The front of the Cathedral has large ‘Republica Paraguay’ crest chiselled prominently into its masthead and a Paraguayan flag sits on the altar alongside religious imagery.
It’s often said that the only thing that stood between dictator Alfredo Stroessner who ruled with an iron fist from 1954 to 1989 and total power in Paraguay was the power of the Catholic church. I can’t help but feel that the decision of an earlier era of the Catholic hierarchy in Paraguay to incorporate state symbols into religious life stopped Stroessner seizing control of his country’s flag and national imagery for his own PR purposes in the same way as so many other despots have done so in the past – and will sadly do so in the future.
Sitting inside the church, I began imagining all the covert pro-democracy meetings that must have taken place on the pews during Stroessner’s thirty-five year reign of terror. As I was leaving, I noticed a small plaque commemorating Pope John-Paul’s visit to Asuncion in 1988. A year later, Stroessner was ousted. I’d love to know if, as in the case of Solidarnosc in Poland, it was John-Paul’s intervention that gave the democratic opposition the impetus they needed to bring about change.
Brazil is the new US
Visiting Brazil in the early 90s, it was clear that the country was in the grip of a fairly substantial and deep-seated obsessed with the United States. Shops displayed quality-affirming signs telling customers their goods were ‘made in the USA’, fashion malls and businesses complexes had names like ‘New York City Centre’ and ‘Downtown’ and small boutiques were often branded ‘Miami Style’, ‘Florida Fashion’, ‘Style USA’ and such like. Furthermore, American flags adorned most retail businesses. As Brazil’s economy soared during the early 2000s, the country’s obsession with America as the depiction of style, sophistication and aspiration fell away in favour of a new-found sense of national pride and confidence.
No doubt spurred on by admiration at Brazil’s economic miracle, it appears that in today’s Paraguay an association with the country and its attributes is seen as a positive thing. Walking through Asuncion you encounter, in quick succession, the ‘Brazil Nail Bar’, ‘Brazil Fashion’ and numerous travel agents advertising family tourist packages for holidays to the country’s resorts. The Brazilian flag flies over Asuncion’s malls in the same way the US flag once did in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo.
Despite its protestations to the contrary, Brazil might not quite yet be a forceful world power but it’s certainly a well-liked regional one.
Taiwan looms large
Ever since President Nixon’s landmark visit to mainland China in 1972, the people of the Republic of China (Taiwan) have been forced to endure a process of ongoing humiliation as country after country has switched its recognition from Taipei to Beijing. Today, only a handful of countries continue to recognise democratic Taiwan as the true representatives of the Chinese people with Paraguay and its six million citizens being the largest of this group.
After spending a couple of days in Asuncion, it’s incredibly clear to me that this is a relationship that successive governments of the Republic of China have heavily invested in on both an emotional and financial level.
Undoubtedly the most significant manifestation of Taipei’s commitment to its relationship with Paraguay is the country’s sparkling new National Congress which was given to the country as a gift from Taiwan. I rather brazenly walked into the Congress and successfully passed through the security scanners before being stopped by a security guard who pointed me in the direction of reception. After a brief conversation in broken Spanish, the same receptionist agreed to give me a tour of the impressive building.
Financial issues aside, it’s clear the Republic of China has made a genuine effort to invest in emotional aspects of the relationship. Several plaques and messages of support from Taiwanese Presidents are evident on the walls of the National Pantheon of the Heroes which celebrates the country’s war dead, while the Chiang Kai Shek College continues to operate.
While it’s impractical – however much we may wish it was possible – for large trading countries like the US and UK to ignore Beijing in preference for Taipei, it’s encouraging to see Asia’s most vibrant democracy continue to maintain an outpost of diplomatic recognition in South America. Long may it continue.
During my visit to the National Congress, I was briefly shown a poster showing the photographs of the country’s eighty Congressmen. It was striking to notice that, with very few exceptions, nearly all the faces on the poster were as white as mine despite roughly 80% of the population being mixed-race ‘Mestizos’ with native Indian heritage.
Recent examples from other South American countries have shown that the alienation of large parts of the population from the political process can only lead to the election of demagogues like Bolivia’s Evo Morales hell-bent on creating tensions between ethnicities.
The country’s political class – in particular the Colorado Party who had held office successively for 61 years – got a shot across the bows in 2008 when the “red bishop” Fernando Lugo (who is white) won the Presidency on a centre-left ticket that received widespread support from poorer, Mestizos voters. While the conservative political classes were shocked to lose to the centre-left, Lugo generally focussed on moderate social reforms during his time in office and rejected overtures from Hugo Chavez to join his anti-Western alliance. Next time they may not be so lucky.
It’s clear to me that, if Paraguay is to avoid falling under the spell of the Chavez/Morales/Correa cabal, political parties of all hues need to do far more to include Mestizos voters amongst their candidates for office. These efforts need to be aggressive and immediate.
On an election-related note, the city is covered in posters in advance of the Presidential and Parliamentary elections in April:
On to Montevideo
Given that everything had gone with complication in Asucion, I had a strange feeling as I dragged my hungover carcass through the sweltering heat of the city’s crowded bus terminal that something was about to. And so it came to pass.
I had checked, checked and checked again on the bus station’s website and that of each of the bus operators to check that a bus did indeed run from Asuncion to Montevideo on a Sunday. “No, no, no, Lunes, Miercoles, Sabado!” came the response from a rather gruff lady behind the counter. “Today go no bus Montevideo!”. Eventually, I found out there was a flight running a few hours later which, while double the price of the bus, would get me to Montevideo in 2 hours 20 minutes as opposed to 21 hours. I booked a ticket, headed for the airport and touched down in Montevideo a little after 7pm.
I’ve not yet had any real opportunity to look around the city but it’s worth saying that the city’s airport is the nicest I’ve passed through anywhere in the world. It’s a genuinely impressive building that looks more like a spaceship than an airport.
After the oppressive heat of Asuncion, pulling out of the airport in a taxi and almost immediately finding myself on a seaside promenade with a cool (I say “cool” but it was probably still about 25 degrees) provided some much needed respite. I’ve read before that Montevideo has the highest standard of living of any of the South American capitals and this certainly appears to be the case from what I’ve seen so far.
Anyway, after a good night’s sleep I’ll explore the city properly…
(The image above is of one of Asuncion’s amazing Catholic graveyards)