01.09.2007 - 04.09.2007 27 °C
Marité and Juan Carlos woke me up a lot earlier than i would have hoped; i had only returned from the previous night's drinking foray a few hours before. As we headed in the car to the rowing club, I realised what misconceptions i had had of Paraguay before arriving. My expectations were of a country like Guatemala, given I'd heard the chief language was Guaraní - the native tongue of the indigenous groups, but in fact Spanish is now spoken far wider throughout the country. The capital's full name is Nuestra Señora Santa María de la Asunción, and official nickname is the 'Mother of Cities', having been the primary city in the area from which expeditions left to found other cities, such as Buenos Aires.
There is a significant German influence in the country. A substantial population of German-speaking Mennonites live in the country's northwest, while following the Second World War, Paraguay became a haven for Nazis. German people have continued to flock to the country in peaceful times ever since, while Alfredo Stroessner, the infamous dictator of Paraguay from 1954-1989 had a German father. Government officials (and their well-off cronies) drive around in flashy Mercedes Benz's, while the taxis of Asunción are antique models from the same maker.
There also exists a serious class divide between whites and those with more indigenous blood. The two groups do share common ground in their almost unanimous mistrust of the government, well known as being one of the most corrupt in the world. Despite the class divide and that not as many people fluently speak Guaraní (the most incredibly nasal language i have ever heard) as in times past, the people of Paraguay still have strong ties to the language and folklore of the indigenous groups. Paraguay remains a strongly religious country, but worship is divided between Catholicism, the Evangelical and Pentecostal churches and various other interpretations of essentially the same thing.
I've been fortunate with my timing and choice of Spanish school. My family, living only three doors down from where i study and a ten minute walk from the centre of town, is a perfect example of what I have been discussing. My surrogate parents are retired, own a large house and a Mercedes (though an ancient model), and employ an girl to cook and clean for six days a week. Every day, she makes my bed for me and amongst many other things, mops the patio which hardly gets used. She earns about ₲350,000 per month, which is around AUS$80. My surrogate father, Juan Carlos is a strong-willed, likeable chap whose grandfather founded the first football team in Paraguay as well as the rowing club - Club Deportivo de Puerto Sajonia, which has now become a huge, multi-sport complex on the Rio Paraguay.
Five of us crossed in a boat to a large island owned by the club in the middle of the river to cook a Parilla (barbecue) for several hours during the day. The Rio Paraguay, one of the major transport thoroughfares in the country is unfortunately not the cleanest river in the world. Its banks are lined with rubbish at the high-water mark and old rusted hulks sit high and dry on the shores in front of Asunción. Much to the surprise of all of us on the boat, the captain decided it was indeed drinkable, and he scooped some up into his cup as we crossed back. Paraguay is a considerably laid-back country, a place to sit and watch the world go by while sharing Tereré. It has to be said that this is perhaps the national pastime, people carry around their jugs and cups with them to social occasions and work; the park benches are reclined as to induce some find of pleasant slumber, and there is even a type of plant which grows as it floats lazily down the river.
One of the greatest differences between Latin America and western countries is that of the lowest-class worker. In the various countries of this region it presents itself differently, but often involves back-breaking and thankless labour. In Guatemala, it is not uncommon to see men, aged from very young to very old, doubled over hauling large quantities of wood on their backs. In São Paulo, men drag gigantic carts laden with cardboard and other recyclables they have collected along the traffic lanes, and in Rio I observed others sifting through trash for discarded copper wire to re-coil for use again.
Begging also is an activity seen less in developed countries, and it seems to be always worse in the touristy places. It is almost non-existent in Asunicón, a place that sees fewer tourists than most capital cities in the region. This rings especially true for Salvador in Brasil - a city that revived itself through tourism, and one has to wonder whether some of the beggars in a place like that are just too lazy to work, as they often were on the Caribbean coast of Central America. One of the most heart-wrenching situations is refusing to give money to a mother with a child on the premise that it possibly was the tourist dollar that put them there together in the first place.