Monday, May 31, 2010

Asuncion, Paraguay

I’ve probably spent close to a few weeks already in Paraguay, with at least one full week in Asuncion. I spent two nights in a hostel in the downtown on separate occasions, and have been Couchsurfing with a family in a nice neighborhood since Thursday the 27th.

Paraguay is an interesting country. I’m really glad I decided to come here because it is totally different, from the climate, to the architecture, to the people, politics & culture.

The architecture downtown is probably the most interesting I’ve seen. I really liked the architecture in Buenos Aires, but here it is more colonial. It is also much less well maintained here. Having said that, Asuncion is one of the oldest cities in South America, older than Buenos Aires. The downtown is small enough to walk around in 2 or 3 hours. Asuncion borders a larger river, the Rio Paraguay. The downtown area almost goes to the water, but there is a giant favela(slum) in between that serves as a buffer between the downtown and the water. On the last main street downtown, closest to the water, you can feel very safe, yet look one block to your right, and the favela is in your face, tin roofs and all… it just begins, there is no transition. I was advised that this is a place never to go unless you know someone there. Another contradiction is there is a giant glass legislative building on this street (funded by Taiwan)….from the steps of this building, the guys in suits can see people coming up from the favela shoeless 100 feet away. The downtown has lots of policemen standing around, bearing large AK-47 style guns. Despite all this, the downtown is a pretty safe area, and I had no problems walking around at night.

A colonial building downtown:

The favela downtown. There are some parts where it is basically a wall against downtown:

Love the colors:

President's building:

One of the changes I liked from Argentina was the food diversity. Due to the climate, they grow many different fruits. Grapefruits and manadarin trees are everywhere including on the streets. They don’t have much seafood aside from what comes from the river, but their more diverse cooking makes up for it. Many dishes are based with corn, and many things are fried. They still are big meat eaters, but they just mix it up more than the Argentinians.

Eduardo from Couchsurfing sent me a message and said I could stay with him and his family in Asuncion. He is 18, has a brother that is 23, a sister that is 25, and they all live with the parents, which is common here. The neighborhood is very nice. If I had to wager, it would be in the top 5 in Asuncion. The nicest neighborhood, however, has huge houses, and the people actually have security guards in boxes outside.

House in best neighborhood of Asuncion with security guard box outside:

Anyways, the days with the family have been really fun and typical. Every day, they have a large spread of snacks around 4pm and the family snacks together. This usually includes coffee, tea, cocido (which is yerba mate, sugar, water, and milk), plus a spread of breads. Lunch is the biggest meal, which the live in ‘maid’ cooks around noon. Dinner is smaller, around 9 or 10 pm. All meals we eat together. Lots of typical Paraguayan foods and drinks.
The mom has a business she runs out of the house where she buys American clothes in the US and then sells them by word of mouth. The dad is retired and used to work as some sort of tax guy for the government. The tax rate, by the way, is 8 or 9 percent here. I can’t validate the % of people that pay/don’t pay, though someone told me it was low. Eduardo is working full time at a bank and studies at night. This is normal here. The other brother, Hugo, is studying electrical engineering. Since this is much harder than business school (haha!) he studies full time. The daughter works in human resources at a bank. Although we speak in Spanish, all three of the kids have pretty good English. I’ve had a good time talking a lot with the mom and dad. She goes to the US every year to pick out clothes to sell here in Asuncion, name brands. Usually New York and LA. Next year, she wants to come to San Francisco. They have hosted about 6 other people from Couchsurfing, so they seem to enjoy it.

Saturday night, it was one of Eduardo’s friend’s birthday parties, so surprise, we went to a discoteca (seems to be the popular south American thing to do). It was pretty fun, we stayed out until about 5 and called it quits, of course the place was still packed. Sunday was awesome, because we woke up around 12, and the dad had started up the grill an hour earlier and everything was ready. Basically, I woke up and had a piece of chorizo. Anyways, we had a HUGE lunch outside in their backyard, complete with green olives, chorizo, morcilla (blood chorizo), mandioca, several cuts of meat, a nice bottle of Argentinian wine, and a fresh salad. After lunch, everybody pretty much did nothing the rest of the day. We snacked at night together, Sunday style. Saturday night, I cooked Chili for 6. Well, my Paraguayan version at least. I couldn’t find yellow cheese, chili powder, cayenne pepper, canned tomatoes, or the right beans, so it kind of turned into a stew. This however really is due to the fact that Paraguayans actually cook food as opposed to Americans, who buy stuff in cans, boxes, and packages. I also cooked baked potatoes to accompany the Chili. It was mmmm mmmm good.

I cooked chili:

Went out to a discoteca with Eduardo & some of his friends:

Sunday Lunch. Red wine, meat, fresh air, and relaxing outside:

Dad prepares the steak. Grilling is his specialty (suprise):

Lunch Sunday:

Although winter is approaching, the weather in Paraguay is fairly tropical, so it really only gets cold at night. I’d say it’s been between 55 and 75 most days. Moving on to politics, it is true, Paraguay is very corrupt, and you probably can get any type of fake electronic that you’d like here. There was a bus strike the other day here. Some drivers decided not to drive. Well, for the unfortunate drivers who decided to keep going, the ones who stopped paid hooligans to throw rocks into the moving buses, and many people were injured by the rocks and broken glass. Silly people. Also, recently there has been an increase in drug trafficking and guerilla activity in the north of Paraguay, which has been big in the news here. They government got some sort of martial law permission to send extra troops up there to quell them. Anyways, that is one of those things the US State department would probably tell people not to come to Paraguay for, but in reality everything is totally fine for a tourist. There also is dengue here. Not too many people are worried about it, though. I think the last figure I saw was about 6,000 cases, but I have no timeframe for that. Eduardo said he knows people who have had it, and it took a week to recover.

Random side note: I have seen more BMW and Mercedes here than in any place in Argentina. Who would have thought. Also, I should shave, but I’m going to see if I can look like Jafaar from Aladdin. I don’t think it’ll happen though.

In summary, the Spanish word tranquilo sums up Paraguay for me. People are relaxed, climate is tropical, life isn’t fast, people enjoy themselves.

The buses are more colorful than Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, & Chile. Also note police officers, AK 47 are in front.

Check out this action shot of me pouring salt into the Chili. If you look closely, the top fell off and the whole bottle is pouring out:

Found this book that sums it up nicely. I seriously thought about purchasing it. The back cover was completely blank, ingenious:

Friday, May 28, 2010

San Salvador, The Country (Campo), Paraguay

So one of the main reasons I decided to go to Paraguay was I was able to visit my friend Liz in the Peace Corps, in the middle of nowhere southern Paraguay. Thought that was a pretty good chance to see something totally different, and I could stay for however long. Since Paraguay is a tiny country, the bus ride was only 3 hours (on the direct bus!) to Villarica, town of 60,000. Liz met me at the terminal. Then, we took the 50 minute bus ride to San Salvador, town of 2,000, half of it being on stone covered road.

The bus to Villarica:

San Salvador appears to me to be a dying town. I’m not really sure why Peace Corps even has a volunteer here. 10 years ago, when 6,000 people lived here, there was a big rail station, then it closed down. Over the 10 years, people stole all the train tracks in the town, and everything of value. The people of the city were able to save a few cars by having a 24 hour watch. It wouldn’t seem like it from pictures, but the people here are fairly well off. Most of their kids went to college, and never came back, which also contributes to the decrease in population. Most people drive moto’s/scooters (which I got to ride on the back a few times). Some have cars. Occasionally there is a nice BMW that whizzes by (the gap is large, if you’ve got money, you’ve really got money).

Taking a moto ride with David:

One of the remaining trains:

The train lookout building, still intact (on the outside, at least):

View from 2nd story of train building (note girl standing next to chicken):

So it is a dirt road town, full of roaming cows, chickens, some pigs, and some horses. Water goes out every day from 12pm-2pm, then from 9pm-5am. We kept a few large buckets of fresh water just in case you need to use the toilet after 9pm or wash some dishes. Electricity was decent most of the time. Flickered here and there some days. There was a big lightning storm one night, and electricity went out quite easily. Without cable TV, there was 4 channels, 2 which were a bit hazy, 2 which were good.

Here's your farm animal shot:

Also, my opinion of Peace Corps changed a bit. Basically, they seem to be focused on cultural immersion more than development. I suppose that’s fine. But when they turn away older people with real skills who can probably actually do something, for younger people fresh out of college, it seems silly. Paraguay actually has 200 volunteers, 2nd most in the world to Ukraine. After training, they kind of throw the people to the wolves. Most volunteers seem to be bored a lot, with not a ton of stuff to do. So, it seems a bit ridiculous to send a bunch of people to the middle of nowhere to work 10-15 hours a week and be bored, buy hey, cultural immersion is what they’re getting...

I was like an anomaly in the town. Many people knew I was here. Liz has a boyfriend from Paraguay who she lives with, and the people of the village, simply due to their nature/culture, thought it was the weirdest thing to have another guy come stay at their place. So when I walked by people, I felt like an outsider many times. But when I met people of course they were very nice. One time we went to a neighbor’s house, and they made Mbeju for us, a traditional Guarani food (the name is a Guarani word). Most people here speak Spanish and Guarani, the indigenous language, which is also a co-official language of Paraguay with Spanish. In fact, unlike lots of indigenous languages, it actually is not dying.

Preparing the masa for Mbeju (this one requires a unique texture that probably will be hard to recreate if I try to make it):

Like most traditional Paraguayan foods, it is fried (or has corn). Flipping a Mbeju:

Final Product:

The area has a ton of raw sugarcane, which they export. Other than that, I’m not sure what industries there are. Although, they do have a wide variety of fruits/vegetables & natural resources due to the climate here (it is fairly tropical). However, the government is so corrupt (a repeated story I’ve heard many times), that nothing gets developed. In fact, many times, the villages do get money from the government, but it gets funneled into someones pockets in an intermediate level.

A truck transporting raw sugarcane. If you think this looks like a date method of transporting the sugar cane, you should see the scales they use to weigh the cane, which appear to be from the 1800s:

My other blog has most of my observations about all the oddities of the people here. Otherwise, I spent most of the days watching Spanish television (practicing), and lazing around, like most Paraguayans that live outside the capital city. The main concerns of the days were what Paraguayan foods are we going to cook for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
One of the highlights of the week was a barbecue we had with Liz, her boyfriend David, and 2 of his friends for David’s birthday. We cooked chicken & ribs on the grill. They grilled those suckers for almost 2 hours, I was worried that they were going to taste like rubber, but they tasted good. One of the guys played guitar, so I took out my harmonica and showed them. I gave it to the one guy who had never seen a harmonica, and it was hilarious watching him try to play. Then, we taught David’s two friends how to tie ties, followed by how to use dental floss. They reciprocated by taking a plastic bag, ripping a few pieces off, stretching them nice and thin, and showing us that this was a perfect alternative to having to buy real floss.

Trying to play a harmonica for the first time (and apparently having a REALLY good time doing do so):

Other random Paraguayan observations: At least outside of Asuncion, I think that most people might not think much of a world exists outside of Paraguay, save for maybe Argentina and Brazil. For example, many people might not be able to believe that Mate does not exist in some places, simply because that is not their mindset to think things are different in other places. The fact machine told me the following: 11 percent of the roads in the country are paved. 33 percent of people live below the poverty line. There are twice as many mobile phones as land lines. 10 % of kids won’t get an education. From 1910-1912, there were 7 presidents. The war between Paraguay & Uruguay/Argentina/Brazil from 1865-1870 was supposedly the bloodiest in modern times, wiping out a large portion of Paraguay’s population (heard a lot about this in Argentina, they killed everyone they saw). Paraguay lost land in that, war, then more later in a massive war with Bolivia.

The bus to Villarica never came one day so we hitchhiked in this friendly van (although they attempted to charge us more than what it would cost to take a bus):

This is Terere. They drink this in the summer, as it is cold. Smash up a nice root with a hammer, and put it inside:

David enjoying his birthday barbecue:

They eat tons of this stuff here, which they call Mandioca. Good for sustenance when your working. Tastes like nothing. But in the country they serve it with everything. Think of eating a somewhat hard brown potato.

Cool looking building in San Salvador:

Self Explanatory:

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Esteros del Ibera, Argentina

Here are my photos from my visit to Esteros del Ibera, a marshland reserve in northern Argentina, which I visited a few weeks ago (losing track of time). It is comparable to the Pantanal in Brazil, with one of the worlds most diverse range of animals & birds. Mostly saw birds (there are over 300 types here), plus plenty of capybaras (worlds largest rodent), alligators, and a small cat. There are also monkeys, different types of deer, and much more.

Waiting for the bus to come at 3AM to go back to Mercedes:

This guy is full on gaucho. Hat, knife, pants, shirt, belt, boots:

The 3 hour ride there from Mercedes is on such a crappy road he had to tighten the lugnuts halfway through. This is the crappiest bus I have taken.

Might as well have been camping at this hostel, talk about basic services:

This bird saves energy by riding on the capybara, while eating insects off its back:

Took a boat ride through the marsh: