South America Trip Day 12 – Asuncion, Paraguay

The morning in Santiago was chilly but the sun was shining, and, despite the severity of the riots all day yesterday, the city was going about its usual business. A shame then that Alex and I had to go to Asuncion, Paraguay today. We’d lost a day in Chile due to the bus fiasco in Mendoza. We’d barely scratched the surface of this fascinating country. Still, when you taste something so good, it leaves you wanting more, and that’s always a good time to go. You’ll definitely come back that way.

And so it was – Paraguay. I knew nothing of this place, nor did Alex. I know it’s landlocked and bordered by Argentina, Brazil and Bolivia, and has a population of almost 7 million, 40% of whom are poor. Europeans first arrived in the area in the early sixteenth century, and the settlement of Asunción was founded on August 15, 1537, by the Spanish explorer Juan de Salazar de Espinoza. The city eventually became the center of a Spanish colonial province, as well as a primary site of the Jesuit missions and settlements in South America in the eighteenth century. Due to a lot of intermarriage between Spanish settlers and female indigenous Guarani brides, both languages are spoken officially, which shows how enduring the culture is. It’s an interesting place, where, surprisingly, a large group of around 25,000 German speaking Mennonites also live. Alex and I spotted a large family of them at check-in, with blonde hair and disturbing in-bred looks. They eyed us suspiciously. We eyed them suspiciously. We clearly didn’t trust one another.

We arrived in the capital, Asuncion, and got a taxi through the incredibly dark streets to Asuncion Palace Hotel. The drive in reminded me of Jakarta somehow. So dark and uninviting at first glance, but with a charm that quickly bubbles to the surface. The hotel was another ‘Foresta’ style old Spanish colonial-era palatial place, it’s old-world charm faded but still present in the marble floor lobby, the chandeliers, the tiny ancient elevator, the concierge in crisp white shirt and bow tie. The rock hard beds failed to charm, but no matter. We weren’t here to sleep much.

We quickly changed and had a glass of drambuie to get us in the mood. We then headed out into the night. Heading out into a new country we knew nothing about, with no guide book, no map, was exciting and carried an element of adventure and a hint of danger. The bloke at reception at the hotel told us of a place which was supposed to be the best restaurant in Asuncion, the San Roque. So we headed there for a Paraguayan meal which looked and tasted just like a chicken cordon bleu. Alex had the beef version. I had no idea the cordon bleu was a Paraguayan dish. We washed it down with a bottle of Paraguayan beer, Pilsen, a beer which shows the German influence in a very positive way, crisp, fresh, uncomplicated, reliable. It was only us, a young bloke, and a couple of old men in the whole place, and Paraguay were playing Colombia on the tiny old TV at the end of the restaurant, which everyone, including the waiters, were glued to. The place was old yet grand, and had no doubt seem some impressive days. Alex and I were treated like royalty, and our beer was brought to us in champagne ice buckets, and poured into our glasses by a smiling waiter using a white napkin to stop the beer dribbling. It was a pleasant dinner.

From here we walked up the quiet Eligio Ayala street towards an area where it was said there was some nightlife. On every corner stood a military man with a big gun. It seemed excessive, but no doubt there was a reason for this heavy presence. We came to a park which had been taken over by a large group of the city’s poor, and turned into a little community. They were living in tents, their laundry was out to dry in the warm night (thankfully we were in warmer climes now – at last) and their kids were running around playing. We skirted around the park and came to a nice bar/restaurant set in a leafy courtyard where we played some pool and drank some more pilsen. We felt alive tonight – there was a buzz in the air. Asuncion seemed a pleasant place so far. Here we were in an old bar playing pool on an ancient pool table with faded pictures on the wall. An old englishman sat reading a newspaper in the courtyard and drinking a gin and tonic. He looked like he’d been there for years. Alex remarked that Asuncion and these scenes were just like something from the pages of a Graham Greene novel. We decided to pop to the Brittanica pub next.

Brittinica is certainly a place from a novel. Set in a crumbling 2 floor building only half finished, it’s the kind of place where anything can happen and most probably does. A good mixture of locals and seasoned expats were here tonight – straight, gay, European, South American, North American, Asian…it was an intriguing place. Alex and I sat upstairs and had a couple of beers whilst surveying the darkened scenes, half torn down buildings either side of the upstairs terrace gave a feeling of drinking on a building site. We got chatting to 3 local ladies who spoke good English, and were curious about us being there. They, like the other locals in here, were from the posh part of Asuncion. They all had drivers waiting for them outside in trucks and jeeps. They had all been sent to the USA at some point in their education by well-heeled parents. A life of privilege, then. They spoke of summer pool parties at one another’s houses, of long weekends in Brazil, of long breaks in Europe. They also told us the story of this pub, Brittanica. Apparently, a British expat – a teacher – set up the bar, but he was an alcoholic and drank away his profits – so he agreed with a German man that the German take over – and the German made it the success it is now – but when the German did the deal the Brit had one condition – he keep the name Brittanica. And that is why a German man runs a British pub in Paraguay. Alex and I then held court for a while before bidding farewell to go and check out a place the girls had recommended.

We went some way out of the city to get to Cover Club, in an upmarket bar area called Las Carmelitas. This area is the playground of Asuncion’s spoilt, rich and famous. Cover club was full of models and the other beautiful people. Really beautiful people. Paraguay – a hidden treasure. All the women looked like they’d stepped off the cover of a magazine. So did the blokes. They were gathered around tables with bottles of spirits, pouting, or dancing to the live band. It was packed. I found it amusing that 80% of people here were glued to their blackberrys. A clear symbol of wealth and ‘sheep’ instinct, I wasn’t quite sure why they were so busy flashing them around. Everyone here seemed to know each other anyway, like some kind of exclusive club. Who else were they ‘pinging’? Asuncion’s a young city in terms of demographics. 65% of people here are under 30, and most of them seemed to be partying in this area. They were all friendly enough, and quite a few people seemed curious to see us and a little surprised – I guess our clothes weren’t of the designer quality needed to blend in.

Alex and I gave it a good couple of hours, then headed back to the area around our hotel by taxi. We walked around this near-deserted area, known to be in the ‘dodgy’ edge of town. There were a few small bars, neon lights that promised much but delivered nothing. We walked around a bit more, and saw some truly hopeless cases of young, homeless and helpless – a grim reminder that, for many people in Asuncion, life’s not all about glamour and blackberry phones, but about survival when there is no hope of getting out of the extreme poverty you are born into. As one of the grubby faced young urchins ghosted off across the street after money, his clothes in tatters, his eyes the eyes of one with not long left to live, he coughed a horrible, deep cough that seemed like it would shatter his exposed rib cage. I don’t know how such a divide between rich and poor could be allowed to exist. A truck full of drunk young partygoers hanging out of the back with bottles of whisky sped past, music at full volume, and their loud hoots, shouts and screams of fun faded to nothing. I noticed that the kid had gone.

We went to Tam Tams for a drink. A dark disco full of 3 people and overly loud music. I wasn’t in the mood anymore, and neither was Alex. We went back to our hotel, looking forward to seeing this city in the daytime.

Author: Neil

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