Monday, 24 May 2010

On a Fine Beach in Paraguay.

The old master Tsitsanis once wrote a song about this magical coastal place. And when he was told that Paraguay is a landlocked country and hence has no coastline, he replied "How could I know? I thought poor little Greece has so many beaches and a country like Paraguay wouldn't have any?" Well it might lack the mythical sandy beaches of the song but Paraguay does not miss much more. That is not the whole truth of course but it's closer to it than not.

The passage from Argentina was cold and drizzly, the border checks cheerful and the first glimpse of my destination a bit gloomy. It actually looked like a no man's land, albeit a content one's. Dirt roads, sparse dwellings that do not constitute communities in any sense of the word and random appearances of living creatures. That changed when we got close to Asuncion, only a few miles away and the bus terminal was the first colorful and characterful delight. You get inundated with busy street vendors and petty gift shops but everybody seems absent minded and never pushy; it's certainly a warm welcome. The local buses are of all species, with ages that span the best part of the last fifty years but common in their red and blue and letters and signs. And people. Busy, polite and absent minded people.

The city itself is no love at first sight. The whole country I think is as understated as that, but they win you over slowly. The center of the capital is old and moldy, the concrete buildings rusty, the billboards old-fashioned and large, the parks are balding and then there are parking lots. Concrete skeletons with steel cells, dripping water and oil. As for the people, they roam around with a Terere in one hand and a thermos in the other. The play checkers with red and blue soft drink bottle caps on the street corners, they walk slowly.  Doesn't sound great huh? But it is! It really is, everybody is so pleasant and polite and friendly, the rhythm is perfect, the sounds and the smells are right, all is in place but just not that polished.

Paragay has always been like this, seemingly underachieving and contradictory. The bridge between luscious Peru and the port and pampas of Buenos Aires in the colonial times, was the main basis of the Jesuit missions, had the first railway in the continent later on and is crisscrossed by rivers but never fulfilled it's grand destiny. The only South American country with an indigenous language as an official one and a healthy Guarani population even today, yet a popular place for huge numbers of German immigrants in the past two centuries. You read about the elusive Nazis after their downfall but the Menonite colonies of the Chaco, the western desert half of the country, are certainly more legendary. Yes, the western desert and the sub-tropical east. But none of it matters, the nation is not wealthy but doing very well for itslef. The little brother of the nearby giants, always in their shadow and once their pray, never making the headlines but it's happy and confident. And it's tasty like the Terere, dull at first but with a little sugar, time and patience wholly refreshing.