South America | Paraguay | Asuncion – A brief foray into Paraguay
Paraguay is a country situated in the middle of Bolivia, Brazil, and Argentina. Indeed, most travellers would pass by it and not bother to go through it, but for some inexplicable reason I did. I still don’t know a lot about Paraguay, except that they have a fairly decent soccer team and that the inhabitants get their kicks from vast quantities of a mysterious tea.
After Buenos Aires I decided to head straight for the capital of Paraguay, Asuncion, on an eighteen hour bus. One of these days those marathon bus rides will drive me over the edge. Thankfully it was a very comfortable bus driving on some smooth roads.
I had intended to visit a few other Argentinian towns along the way, but I realised that my visa deadline was approaching. I remember applying for my Paraguay tourist visa in New York City just under three months ago. When I turned up at the embassy to ask for a visa, the lady had asked me – “You want to go to Paraguay? What for?”
What for indeed. I’m still not sure why I decided to travel up this way. I spent a few days wandering around the capital of Asuncion, mostly underwhelmed by its lacklustre streets. The city sits against the Rio Paraguay, the major river running through the country dividing the east and west sides. Set on the river bank is the large presidential palace, the Palacio de Gobierno. Close by is the new Palacio Legislativo, with a modern architecutural design incorporating a lot of shiny glass. The city has a small number of other historically important buildings, but seems to lack the sophistication found in other Spanish colonial towns on the continent.
As I walked toward the edge of the river, I discovered that there was a large sprawl of ramshackle huts situated under the edge of the city and spreading out towards the river. I was told that this is the shantytown of the city. It was as if the richer part of the city ended near the river, and what began below was the poorer and forgotten part of town.
What amazed me was that some of the houses were but a stone’s throw away from the palace buildings. As I walked around the corner of the presidential palace, I saw several of these poor communities nearby, complete with visible rubbish dumps and collapsing houses patched with rusted corrugated iron. I thought it was rather ironic for them to be situated in the shadows of government authority. “We will rule the city from here, but over the fence, you have to look after yourselves”. What summed up the situation was when I saw a couple of very young kids demonstrating their bravado by urinating on the presidential lawn, and then calmly turning away after being told off by a guard.
The mysterious tea
Browsing through the streets, I saw that many people have set up stalls on the street to sell items like cheap electronics and cheap soccer jerseys, along with the defacto Paraguayan souvenir: a tiny wooden cup with a metal straw.
These cups, as I discovered, seem to be cradled in everyone’s hands. Everywhere I went, I saw locals sitting idly and sipping through the metal straws of these wooden cups containing the traditional herbal tea, or “mate”. On a corner, a newspaper vendor might be chatting to a friend over some mate, while nearby some men would be engaged in a game of checkers with Coke bottle tops for the pieces. All drinking this mysterious concoction.
I didn’t really know where to get a drink either, as it didn’t seem to be served in a normal coffee shop. My opportunity came when I was chatting to a stall owner after purchasing a small souvenir from him. I asked him where I could try some. With a smile, he said that he would “take care of me”. He led me somewhere that took me underground until we arrived at a small cafeteria hidden away. He then introduced me to his friend, a Paraguayan of Japanese descent, who brewed me up some mate.
I sipped through the metal straw and found that it tasted like… grass. Foul bitter grass with hot water added. I did manage to finish it though, and had a pleasant time chatting to John Ohira, the cafe owner. He told me that all Paraguayans drank mate tea. I wouldn’t be surprised if babies drank them before milk. He also told me that he was born in Brazil, had lived in Japan for a while, but then decided to move back to Paraguay as he felt that it was his home. As with most social encounters, I enjoyed the company and conversation more than the drink itself, but left still wondering what the fuss is about over the tea.
I initially thought I had wasted a few days coming to Asuncion, but I’m glad that I at least got to know a bit more about yet another one of the large number of cultures found in South America. For example, almost all Paraguayans speak another dialect called Guarani, providing for some confusion on my part at times when I spoke in Spanish. The city was a different encounter for me, but I at least got to drink something new and add to my ever expanding list of international culinary adventures.