Wednesday, July 23, 2008
Buenos Aires is absolutely packed with American tourists, and they are no novelty in Uruguay either. In order to restore my "street cred" as a true backpacker, I needed to look a little farther than the immediate vicinity of Uruguay for adventure. That was just one of the reasons I decided to make a trip to Paraguay - a country "famous for being famous for nothing," and for being completely off the gringo trail.
But there were plenty of other things that sparked me interest in Paraguay: the fact that it is the region's only bilingual state, where indigenous Guaraní is spoken as frequently as Spanish; the fact that Asunción has been ranked for several years as the world's cheapest city; the impressive ruins of the Jesuit missions that dot the south of the country; and balmy weather that would be a nice change of pace from the cold, wet winter on the Río de la Plata.
My trip to Paraguay involved a long but very enjoyable trip up the Río Paraná, a large and important waterway traveling up northeastern Argentina. My first stop was Rosario, a city with the same beauty and cool vibe of Buenos Aires, but a much smaller size and without the tourist hordes. It is also the birthplace of the Argentine flag, commemorated by a giant moment shown below. At night it is lit up the colors of the flag.
It was a very enjoyable city with a lot of activity. But the ubiquitous presence of Peruvian windpipers inevitably playing their rendition of "My Heart Will Go On" from Titanic reminded me I was still on the gringo trail.
The next stop was Posadas in the Argentine state of Misiones. The city was pleasantly perched on the Paraná and is mainly visited by tourists for its proximity to Jesuit ruins. I stayed in Posada for a night and visited the nearby ruins of San Ignacio Miní. Also nearby was the home(and now museum) of Uruguayan short-story writer Horacio Quiroga. He can best be described as a Spanish-language Edgar Allen Poe, as his stories are spooky and very entertaining.
My entrance into Paraguay only involved a quick but chaotic bus trip across the Paraná from Posadas, Argentina to Encarnación, Paraguay. My first impression of Paraguay was that it felt like a giant shopping center where absolutely everyone is selling something, from cheap electronics to chipas (tasty cheese bread) to perfume to Disney-themed underwear. The presence of Korean restaurants and Ukrainian churches reminded me of Paraguay's unique cultural mix.
I was also struck by the many signs of vibrant religiosity in Paraguay. To a much greater degree than in secular Uruguay, Jesus is big business in Paraguay, and competing evangelical and pentecostal churches have murals and advertisements all over. Below is a picture of one city block that was covered by such ads.
Just an hour outside of Encarnación is Trinidad, some of the largest and best preserved of the Jesuit missions that had huge cultural and political significance during the colonial period. If you've seen the movie The Mission, you know what I mean. The ruins were definitely a highlight of the trip, and besides a group of about 30 Chileans boys with a church group who used the ruins for a daytime mass, I had the place all to myself.
Finally, my last stop was Asunción, the world's cheapest city and the least visited colonial capital of the continent. When trying to explain modern Paraguay, most people reach back all the way to the mid 1800's when the country disastrously lost the War of the Triple Alliance (against Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay). The war wiped out about 80 percent of the male population of the society. However, the leaders that go Paraguay into the mess are still regarded as national heroes and share a prominent resting place in the middle of Asunción, as shown below.
Also buried with them as a national hero is Gaspar Francia, the country's fascinating dictator and "philosopher-king" in the early 19th century who shut Paraguay off from the outside world after independence and, with a remarkable degree of success, turned it into a neo-traditionalist utopia for a short time. He was also a ruthless dictator, but in Paraguay it seems that "dictator" and "hero" are words that can be used somewhat interchangeably.
Asunción has a beautiful spot at the convergence of two major rivers. However, the riverfront area downtown is completely occupied by slums and can't be enjoyed by tourists. Paraguay is South America's second poorest country. However, I found that Paraguayans were much more inclined to try and sell me underwear, pirated goods or other knick-knacks than beg for money or take it without permission, and I never felt unsafe during my stay in the city.
And what struck me more than anything about Asunción were the displays of obscene wealth in the midst of general squalor. While in Buenos Aires and Montevideo the wealthy have their enclaves and poor areas are mostly out-of-sight in the periphery, in Asunción there are absolutely enormous modern houses all over, even in neighborhoods than aren't exactly high-rent. Also, souped-up Mercedes Benz' and other large American cars wiz around town.
And last, one of the things I wanted to see most in Asunción was the Taiwanese Embassy. Why was this remarkable? Well as some may have guessed, Paraguay is one of the few countries worldwide that officially recognize the Republic of China (Taiwan) instead of the People's Republic of China. For these small countries, the loads of donations and investments that come from recognizing Taiwan outweigh the more practical political benefits of maintaining relations with the world's emerging superpower (China). Paraguay is the only country in South America that maintains diplomatic relations with Taiwan.
(Photo courtesy of Taiwanese Embassy in Asunción)
Overall, it was a fantastic trip and felt exhilarating to escape the comfortable tourist orbit. But I'm happy to be back, especially since I caught pneumonia in overly air-conditioned buses and will find myself in bed for the next week.