Woke up in our lovely old colonial hotel and headed out for a day around lovely old Asuncion. It was a lovely sunny day, warm and inviting for a lovely stroll around this city. Lovely. Military police were everywhere – as were huge national flags – they adorned every building, gate and lamp post, and hung between lines across the roads. It was a great time to be here – Paraguay were celebrating their bi-centennial – 200 years of independence. Asuncion was so colourful with all the flags – and the national mood was one of optimism.
We strolled around the quietly bustling streets and came to the Presidential Palace. Suddenly, a group of men wearing smart suits with dark sunglasses and guns in their belts and holding walkie talkies rushed over to pull Alex and I to one side. I feared the worst, but it was because of Fernando Lugo, the President of Paraguay. We were just in time to see the President himself leave the building in a black car, and speed off with a convoy of police and secret service agents. Incredible luck. The men who pulled us away allowed us a picture of the building, then let us on our way.
We walked around to the back of his palace. His views are of the Rio Paraguay, which also runs through Bolivia, Brazil and Argentina. The river serves as a way of life for a number of poor fishermen who live along its banks and make the majority of their income selling fish in local markets, as well as supplying a major source of sustenance for their families. Too many poor have moved to the capital to seek fortune from the river, however, creating large riverside slums. Alex and I wandered to the small beach here, where military men off-duty were kite-surfing in the river watched by a small crowd, including their colleagues who were dressed in fatigues with rifles slung loosely over their shoulders. It was like something from a James Bond movie. The slums run down the length of the river here. So, on one side of a street you have nice shopping malls and the Presidential palace. On the other, slums. It really is that clear a divide it seems. I wonder what the President must think when he looks out of his bedroom window in the morning at his view of the riverside slums? Not much, by the looks of it. Still, even in this area, the wooden houses with tin roofs were draped in the national colours.
Alex and I continued our walking tour, pausing to pop into the Catedral Metropolitana. We then came across an old train station, inside which a fair was being held by local students, to raise money for the poor who dwelled but 5 minutes walk away by the river, and 10 minutes walk away by the park. Old steam trains were still parked here, and kids were taking turns posing in the cabins. We got talking to some local students, who were all very curious about us and keen to practise their English. Some of the young lads gave us ideas on where to go that evening for a beer. I bought a cushion they had made in the national colours to support their worthwhile cause, then it was time for lunch.
We walked to Lido cafe on the busy Palma street for a delicious lunch of empanadas washed down with a bottle of orange Fizz. It was full of the lunch crowd – men and women in power suits eating quickly whilst chatting away to colleagues. There was no time for deliberating over what to have, so I just pointed at what the bloke next to me was having. Alex had the same. The cheese and ham empanadas we got were excellent, and it felt like we’d achieved something getting a seat at the counter in this busy place and ordering and eating food with the locals.
Across the road from Lido cafe is Panteon de los Heroes, a memorial to Paraguay’s war dead, a beautiful domed white building, around which are colourful stalls selling all kinds of arts and crafts. There was also a huge washing line selling Paraguay football shirts and flags. I bought a flag – I had to, everyone had one, and every building did too. I then bought a Paraguay football shirt. I, too, was being swept away in the fervour of the year of the bi-centennial. I suddenly felt very patriotic. I felt good here in Paraguay. I was enjoying it a lot. Asuncion, with it’s grand buildings and whiff of colonial elegance, with wide paved streets and tree-lined roads, was not what I had expected. I was more than pleasantly surprised.
We decided then to walk to the National Stadium, to see if we could have a stadium tour. It was a long, long walk that took us an hour and a half, all the way out into the nice suburbs of Asuncion. We asked many people along the way, before finally coming to the stadium, a grand old dame, one of the old school, like an older version of La Bombonera in Buenos Aires, or a smaller, older version than the old Wembley. We went inside unchallenged, and were about to get into the players tunnel when the groundsman stopped us. He didn’t want us to leave, he just wanted us to ask him permission to enter the stadium. We did, and he let us go alone. Alex and I walked up the players tunnel, and there we were! We walked on the pitch, sat in the dugouts. I put my Paraguay shirt on, and Alex took loads of pics. Then we swapped. I couldn’t imagine them letting two foreigners in to walk around Wembley like that. You couldn’t even do that in a semi-amateur club’s stadium! This was a great experience, and we milked it for all it was worth before heading out, buying a bottle of Pulp, and then flagging down a taxi to take us back to base.
Tonight we headed to Brittanica for a pizza. It wasn’t quite as magical as the night before, but still lively and full of characters. We then headed to Las Carmelitos again, but this time to Shenanigans Irish bar to watch a decent live band and practise our improving Spanish. Again, we went to Cover Club – and I wasn’t surprised to see pretty much exactly the same crowd as last night. We got knowing smiles from a few people, and the bouncer even offered to buy us a drink. The beautiful people were out in force tonight again. Alex and I came to the conclusion that Paraguayan women are possibly the most beautiful in South America – an amazing blend of Guarani Indian and Spanish, and a mind-boggling combination of the best of Brazil and the best of Argentina. The blokes were all suave looking characters with designer stubble, and I suddenly felt very English, pale, freckly and inferior. It was time to leave. A great day around a fascinating capital city. The first full day, and the last. We were off again in the morning…this time to Brazil.