Paraguay, Hijo de hombre

Paraguay River

Paraguay River

I long for Paraguay as much as I long to breathe. The existence of that country is one more thing that is there in my mind, perhaps an ambition, perhaps a place, perhaps the representation of a dream or a representation of the concept itself of simply wanting, perhaps simply the sound of a word.

It exists for me in a few different ways, some of which are more pleasant than others, and some of which ironically don’t exist for the locals themselves. It is the tropical flatlands with colourful flowers and paths of red earth that spread out into windswept plains that go far off into nowhere. Paraguay is heat, stifling summer heat. It is the rivers, the forest, the thousand of species of animals with Guaraní names, the lack of coastline. Paraguay is the nation that was once complete jungle. Paraguay is the people drinking local tea outside the front of their houses on a Sunday afternoon, born in a forgotten corner of the world who exist purely for themselves, forgetting the wider world that forgot them.

It is the name. No one is even completely sure where the word Paraguay came from. It is probably from the indigenous Guaraní language and probably means “The water that flows to the sea,” the country named after the massive Paraguay River that does what I’ve just suggested. Or it could be named after local birds, or a tribe of local pirates.

Paraguay is many things, my mind separating the promise of magic from the land of incessant difficulties. Paraguay is a people born in an economic prison without exit signs. It is without money from the legal sector yet a country that is one long black market whose profits are siphoned off by crooks. It is a tranquil country that snoozes yet has terrible problems with petty crime. The night I got there I was told not to go into town until the next morning. “That’s Paraguay,” the reservedly personable landlord shrugged.

The Chaco Desert, scene of the War of Thirst

The Chaco Desert, scene of the War of Thirst

Paraguay is quintessentially South American. It does not have Argentina’s tourists, or Colombia’s salsa dancing, or Bolivia’s Andes Mountains, or Peru’s connection to the Incas. It is sneered at by Brazilians in their hauteur who go there for cheap shopping. But it is authentic. Visitors describe the reserve of the locals, the quiet confederacy of purpose, the vague sadness and quietness that drifts, the straightforwardness of the locals who apparently have not yet discovered sarcasm and despite the arrival of 21st Century amenities, the internet, abundant mobile phones, have not quite discovered the modern world in its entirety.

The country was almost crushed by Brazil and Argentina in the 1870s. It was not wiped off the map but ceased to exist as a viable, self-sufficient nation, and the mood never really recovered. Then they shot themselves in the foot a few more times.

I was there for one day, on July 15, 2006, one week after the soccer World Cup had finished, when Zinedine Zidane had planted his head and the Italian team had put in all of its penalty kicks. My friend and I knew no one there and found the place impenetrable, too much of a mystery to crack in a few hours without someone holding my hand, which I didn’t have. I bought a famous Paraguayan book there called Hijo de hombre for 25,000 Guaraníes, which I simply paid for with a $us5 note. It’s next to me right now, one of my rarest possessions. Inside the story the country unfolds…

In the small town of Sapucai in the flowery countryside where people speak Guaraní to each other instead of Spanish, people without land or power struggle to rise up and are always defeated by the Paraguayan army. Memories of the town go back to a few years after Halley’s Comet flew past Paraguay, to 1912, when hope was denied and their best men were killed. Those without anything try again, and again lose. Army conscripts ask themselves: we’re one of them, it kills me to be ordered to fire on these peasants, I’ve become just like the guy who killed my Dad. Then a four-year war against one of Paraguay’s neighbouring countries unites the nation: The political prisoners are all freed and the focus shifts outward, to the Chaco Desert (this happened in the 1930s), the theatre of war where more soldiers die gruesomely of thirst than by the bullet. The war ‘won’, the soldiers, some who have had arms and legs amputated and some who will not get over the trauma of war return home to their farms. The old shouts and the graffiti of the disenfranchised begging for land, bread and freedom will once again start up. The narrator says: something has to change. A people can’t continue to be oppressed indefinitely. Man is like a river, who is born and dies in other rivers. A bad river is one that dies in an estuary, because stagnant water is contaminated, poisonous. It engenders miasmas of a malign fever, of a furious madness. Then, to cure the sick man or to pacify him, he has to be killed. And the ground of this country is already busy enough under the earth. The book is filled with an edgy, uncertain mood that ends like this:

“There must be some way out in this monstrous countersense of man crucified by man. Because if it’s the opposite it would be the case to think that the human race is cursed forever, that this is hell and that we cannot hope for salvation.

There must be a way out, because if it’s the opposite…”

I love Bolivia tenderly. But I’m in love with Paraguay.

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14 thoughts on “Paraguay, Hijo de hombre

  1. South America is one part of the world I too am keen to explore (that is, once I get a job). I’m also in love with Japan, so perhaps I should be doing a similar post on that.

    But I have to admit, I’ve never really been “in love” with a country like you are towards Paraguay, Luli is towards the occupied territories of Palestine or Dina is towards Australia. I assess something’s beauty based on its accountability and relative merit. I really like Norway because it’s in the top three HDI countries. I am never obsessed with a country insofar that I can devote an entire blog to it. I’m not sure if I could even muster enough gumption to do a blog post about it.

  2. I admire northern Europe for its social programs and all that too. I decided that if the aliens ever land and ask us what we’ve collectively achieved, I’ll point them directly to the Dutch. They have so many new ideas!

    Admiration is not love though. Who can really explain why a certain girl is wonderful to one guy and just another girl to another, or for that matter, why one country is a paradise of exoticism to one guy and is a dump to another. Ah, the wonders of the heart.

  3. I love this– it’s beautiful. I’ve been planning on going to Paraguay this summer for all of the reasons you just described (the authenticity, history, culture, isolation, uniqueness) I’ve never been but what you’ve written is exactly what I’ve imagined. Right now I’m crossing my fingers for a grant to study Guarani in Asuncion. The history of the language, how widely its spoken today, Guarani poetry…it’s fascinating! 🙂

  4. Hi Danielle, thanks for the comment and the compliment. The few tourists that ever detour to Paraguay from Argentina or Brazil or whatever generally dislike it because on the surface there’s not a whole lot to do there, from a tourist perspective. I must admit it was the same for me, not that I didn’t like the place, it was such a mysterious country, but there wasn’t a whole lot to do compared to Bolivia, where I lived for a year. It’s all a question of meeting locals and finding the clubs, or whatever you like doing.

    MAKE LOCAL FRIENDS and you’ll love Paraguay. If you don’t, you won’t. Brush up on your Spanish before you go and I would even say take a few dance classes (some basic salsa I guess, even though they don’t really do salsa in Paraguay) just to get a sense of going out dancing there and you can feel confident in a nightclub there.

    I hope to go back in a more substantial way. Not to pimp out my writing or anything but here is the link to the blog I wrote about my week travelling through Paraguay in 2006, have a look if you’ve got the time and/or inclination (warning, it’s a bit long).

    http://bolivia-tracker.livejournal.com/10996.html

  5. Also, I’m being pedantic now, but in Paraguay they use vos instead of tú. It’s not hard, just say “(vos) hablás” instead of “(tú) hablas” for all your verbs in the tú form, like “¿Qué hacés?” instead of “¿Qué haces?”

    … and commands in the vos (ex-tú) form there are just the infinitive minus the -r and stressed on the last syllable: ¡Comí! ¡Decime! ¡Hablá! Eat! Tell me! Talk!

  6. Lovely entry. It is great and strange to see thoughts that parallel mine so closely. There is some connection between myeslf and Paraguay that has lasted through the years since I lived there as an exchange student. It is a constant in my life, wondering when I will go back. Paraguay has a place in my heart and soul in a way impossible to describe to someone who has not yet felt such a connection to a land not their own. So often I read posts stating, “Don’t visit Paraguay; my cousin (etc) was robbed there!” It saddens me at the same time it causes me to feel an indifference typical of the people: Paraguay is what it is, and I won’t insist that anyone visit it without a desire to. It’s charm is in what’s beneath the surface as you so elequontly described. It’s complexity and contradictions. Thank you! 🙂

  7. There’s not a whole lot told about Paraguay that’s not a bunch of negatives. There’s http://emeraldpass.com/blog and http://guidetoparaguay.com , both maintained by Paraguayan/American women. Otherwise it’s slim pickings about robberies, smuggling, ex-dictatorships and so forth.

    It’s interesting forming attachments to countries that aren’t our own. We’re not from those places but it still hurts when people diss them, and in my case disappointing when they lose soccer matches. I’ve probably thought about the idea of Paraguay a minimum of once a day, every day for the entire decade, as much as one thinks about sex, lol.

    Thanks for the comment, Jessica. This piece in particular seems to have attracted a lot of random people to it. There are always fascinating opinions about things that don’t fit the mainstream: it’s just so hard to find them!

  8. Thanks for the advice, Marty. I just found out last week that I received the grant to go to Asuncion for June and July of this year, so it’s been great looking at all the blogs you gave the links to and learning more about the country and city. I spent a semester in Argentina as an undergrad in 2006, so the vos form is actually what is easiest/most natural for me in Spanish, so that shouldn’t be a problem; but I am a little nervous about understanding such a different accent. At any rate, I’ve loved reading the positive things you and Jessica have posted, and it also frustrates me when people speak or write negatively about places they only know superficially or just don’t understand. I definitely agree with your advice on making local friends–it’s always my top priority when traveling abroad 🙂 Thanks again!

  9. Oh you lucky woman, congratulations and enjoy Paraguay. Accents are accents, just roll with it. Keep in touch or write when you get back (since you’ll be having too much fun to write while there!), mart_gleason@yahoo.com.au or just keep dropping comments on this post.

  10. Hey! i’m from Paraguay and I just wanna say thank u to all of you for writting and saying those nice things about my country. If you ever come here again you should definitively go to Piribebuy, San Pedro, Quyquyho, *San Bernardino, etc there you won’t see modern buildings, technology but a lot of nature and history.

    *Since december untill february you will find lots of people in San Bernardino, especially young people. At night there are a lot of nightclubs for adults and teenagers, restaurants and everything but you will also enjoy the nature arround there, and some old buildings from germans that used to lived there years and yeears ago! 😀

    And yes.. we might have a pretty weird accent haha but if u have any doubts or trouble with the accent just let me know, con gusto les voy a ayudar 🙂

    Sorry about my english… i’m still learning :$

  11. I think your English is great actually Pam. I was going to go to San Bernardino on that one Satudrday night I was ready to kick on in Asuncion, but I ate/drank something weird and ended up throwing my guts out in Bar Britannca, lol.

    Thanks for writing! I hope I will be in Paraguay again one day soon.

  12. Hey! I’m from Paraguay too! Thanks for the nice comments.
    My country really is something, isn’t it? Haha.
    Seriously, it’s different, and yes, the accent shocks anyone who has heard other spanish accents, because it’s just too different.
    What can I say? I love my country, there’s just something about it, maybe I’m saying this because I’m from there, but..I don’t know..It’s the air, the sadness, the sacrifice of the working people, but at the same time that hope, that kindness in the people. And yes, lately it’s been quite fucked up, it’s insecure, I won’t deny it, if you don’t watch it, you will get robbed, it’s reality, but it still has it’s something.
    We were in Luque* with my dad, visiting my grandma, and my dad told me ”This must be the only country were people sit down on the front of their houses to drink terere (a local drink, like the mate from Argentina, but cold) and just talk or watch people go by… Also the only country where you will see four people on a motorcycle without helmet” He laughed after saying that, so did I, cause it’s true, the good and the bad. It’s sort of it’s charm.
    The fact that even aware of all the insecurity, they still go out in their front door and drink terere and talk, or watch people go by, saying hello to everybody, even the ones they don’t know. It’s funny because when I was there my grandma introduced me to her neighbour, and she treated me like she knew me all her life, I guess that’s what we paraguayans have (at least the old people), that kindness, despite all the bad stuff going on, all the bad things that happened to the country, the people just manages to be…nice, to open their arms.
    Again, probably I’m saying it because I am paraguayan, but it’s just how I feel.
    *Luque it’s a city near Asunción,that one it’s a city with an attitude, the one who’s planning on going, should go there,(actually the airport it’s there) I think it’s one of the cities that has the essence of my country, it’s sorts of tells you ”hey, this is Paraguay, so?” You should visit it. You’ll like it.
    Love!!!

  13. Hi Belu,

    What you have to say is very interesting. When you said the old people perhaps had more kindness than the newer Paraguayans, it got me thinking. It’s usually not my place to diss the current generation(s), because they are who they are and we’re just gonna have to work with that. Sin embargo… I just wonder sometimes if the older generations had more humanity than we do today, if we’ve lost something.

    Saludos,
    Marty

  14. Pingback: On the night the dream died « Love is lost

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