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:

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