First impressions of Paraguay
- You're moving to Asunción? Where is that?
- Do you mean Uruguay? Or Portugal?
- No, I mean Paraguay, that small landlocked country right at the heart of South America, barely noticed by the rest of the world, squeezed between its giant neighbors, Argentina, Brazil and Bolivia.
I'll admit it, aside from the popular Spanish saying guay del Paraguay, I myself hadn't given much thought to the country that nobody ever talks about. But contrary to popular belief, Paraguay has a lot to say. Landing in Asunción, I discovered a country overflowing with kindness and willingness to learn, create and grow. A nation standing strong and proud despite its tragic history. A territory rich in light, colors and mangos.
Did you know Paraguay was the first Latin American country to build a rail road? Or that Guaraní is the first official language, leaving Spanish in second place? I also found out that Paraguay sits on top of the largest water reserve in the world, and that 95% of the population is mestiza, descendants of the unions of Europeans and Natives, making it the most homogenous in South America. Homes often don't have numbers or doorbells. Directions are given through street corners, sketches and/or descriptions of the door. Your arrival is announced with a clap of hands or a phone call. One last fun fact you're going to love: pistol duels are still legal in the country, given that the participants are registered blood donors.
Walking through the uneven streets of Asunción, I have to focus on not tripping over the roots growing in between the stones of the sidewalks. It's a difficult task because I get so easily distracted by the textures of messy constructions sites, the exotic plants and fresh shadows, where I hide to avoid melting under the heavy sun. The heat is sweet and humid and hugs your whole body, leaving it all sticky with sweat.
Life blossoms on every corner, gently conquering streets, balconies and windows. Mango trees grow in every backyard, their long branches peeking into the streets, dropping their fruit and coloring the sidewalks orange when in season. The infrastructures are literally built around these tall trees. An eclectic mix of colorful colonial buildings, dirty chipped façades, modern luxurious malls and residential houses, some hidden behind tall walls or fences. Security measures for a city that already feels safe.
In the 19th century, Paraguay was slaughtered by Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil (with the support of Britain) in the War of the Triple Alliance. The war ended with the devastating defeat of Paraguay, who lost, not only part of its territory, but also 70% of its population, making it the deadliest event of Latin American History. Women and children were left with the task of healing the country while repopulating the nation. After the war, the country was taken over by yet another dictator, the fourth of its History, who isolated its people hiding behind protectionist policies. It's been almost 150 years since the end of the War and only 26 since a democratic system was established, and Paraguay today still remembers the its bloody and oppressive past. But the people have chosen to remember the bravery of their ancestors. They celebrate their heroes and praise the women that brought back to life the country. They don't hold grudges and instead, welcome everyone into their land. I have never met more hospitable people. Paraguayans are cheerful and kind, and have a beautiful way of retaining their traditions, shared by all regardless of age, income or politics.
Contrary to other Latin American countries, who are slowly loosing their indigenous languages, Paraguayans still learn Guaraní in school and proudly teach foreigners the most commonly used expressions, like ro hai hu (I love you) or ña moko (let's have a drink). As an onomatopoeic language, with words imitating the natural environment, its poetry is untranslatable, and the sounds are like nothing I had heard before.
Everyone drinks tereré or ka'ay in guaraní (water, ka'a + herbs, y), a local infusion of yerba mate, much like the Argentinian, but prepared and served with iced cold water to fight the high temperatures. It's very common to see people carrying their big thermos around, often personalized with names or logos, so they can enjoy tereré on the go. It's a social beverage, shared by all and it comes with its own set of rules. The youngest of the group should serve the others counterclockwise and drink last. Gracias (thanks) should only be said when you are done drinking, otherwise the cup keeps getting refilled. The herbs are sold everywhere and some called yuyos, are especially prepared to heal all sorts of aches and troubles.
Life in Asunción moves slower, much slower. Time is relative and people are always late, if they ever arrive. There is a national inability to say no so instead of being straight forward, people agree to everything, including what they can't do or can't accomplish in time. Forget fast and efficient, in Paraguay patience is essential to survive. Maybe the heat weights people down, I haven't figured it out yet. But everything has a balance. Paraguay has also taught me to be spontaneous, to slow down and to appreciate what I have. I finally have time to write and chase shadows and for now, I'm going to enjoy that. More photos and and thoughts about my new home coming soon.