Tour Guide’s holiday in Paraguay

On a break from working as a tour guide, I was travelling from Brazil to Peru. The border between Brazil and Paraguay was closed. The Peoples’ Army of Paraguay had sealed the ironically-named ‘Bridge of Friendship’ with a makeshift barrier in protest at Brazilian traders (“sacoleiros”) buying cheap goods to sell at a big profit back home. Someone announced that people would be allowed across for only twenty minutes that day. As crowds began to push from behind I was afraid of being tipped over the side for a hundred metre drop to a watery death. But no one panicked, and some fifteen minutes later we strolled into the border post to get our passport stamped.

En route to Asuncion

We hailed a taxi to take us to the main road to catch our bus to Asuncion, the taxi man having assured us that the blood in his cab was from a cow.

Our bus driver had waited for us, alerted by our guide to the border problem. The dusty road was lined with ‘gomerías’ and ‘cambistas’ huts, if we needed to change tyres or money. Paraguay is one hour behind Brazil, yet it felt like fifty years. Oxcarts ambled along past mini ‘ranches’ with tethered horses and cows, chickens pecking in the dirt among anthills and haystacks one metre high.  ‘Sit up and beg’ buses, painted in bright red, yellow, blue and white stripes, stirred up clouds of dry soil. We passed a collapsed football stadium, where 150 people had died two years before.

In the capital, after our first meal of suburí – a delicate-flavoured river fish- we took a walk along the main streets. Shanties led down to the river’s edge, behind impressive if slightly faded former colonial buildings. There appeared to be no system at pedestrian crossings: everyone just walked at random in between the speeding cars. In the shady courtyard of the Post Office I packed up a parcel for my son into a small box sold at the counter, as they explained that they had to see what I was posting. En route to the British Embassy, mimosa trees screened the bullet holes in walls. The last diplomatic bag had been received two months ago.

Parts of Asuncion looked like bombsites, others comprised concrete, blackened fifties buildings, with just a few lovely examples of elegant architecture in between. The air bore the scent of past violence, yet people were chatty and cheerful. Posters of the President and Vice-President were stuck to every tree, keeping an eye on the population.

A side trip to Luque

After a look round the railway museum, we set off on a short steam train journey to nearby Luque. As the engine puffed out of the station, we had to move away from the windows to avoid soot clouds and burning embers. The track was overgrown apart from the shiny parallel lines leading into impenetrable thicket. Branches flicked in, barely missing our faces and scattering torn leaf shreds around the carriage. The whistle blew continuously to warn dogs, hens and cattle off the line. Some urchins had clambered on board, offering chipas – a kind of cheese scone – for sale.

We passed the outskirts of the city where the poor had built their shacks alongside the municipal rubbish tip. On thirty-metre-high mounds made of plastic bags, empty tins, torn cans, newspapers and scraps of rotting food, tiny barefoot children scrambled for pickings. The passing of the train was the highlight of their day; they stood in ragged shorts or shifts, staring at us with the resignation of the starving, as we chugged slowly past. Fiercely protective brothers held hands with fragile little sisters and mangy dogs barked loudly nearby. Turkeys and pigs sniffed around the skinny legs of old people sitting on hard wooden benches, too tired to move. One angry man threw a stone at the train. His home was one of many four-by -two-metre huts made up of  thin wooden planks nailed together to form the walls and roof, with mud floor, located just one metre from the railway track. The image of two such shacks, erected on the very top of the rubbish heap, will haunt me forever. A foetid ‘stream’ ran amidst this abject squalor. Our train ploughed on through, whistling still, as the wide-eyed children raised their arms weakly to wave, wearing a grimy, toothless smile.

Luque station with grass-covered tracks!

The tracks at Luque were not even visible, completely covered by grass. We disembarked to be greeted by a party of animals and poultry pecking and sniffing around our feet. There was no sign of a building, so we headed for what seemed to be a street and came across the ‘General’ restaurant where we ate more fish, at a table between orange-painted columns on green bases. As part of the service, they put on the television to drown out the street noise of engines, radios…and other televisions.

We caught the bus back to the city. We bumped and clacked and banged along, the driver having refused any payment from us or any passenger, preferring to greet other road users with an open-handed wave, his palm held still in the air until they passed. We asked if he was going to Asuncion. “Casi” (almost), he replied. We sang along to Queen’s ‘Break Free’ on the radio, watching women enthusiastically buying pot plants from numerous florists. Another shop sold model galleons made of cream wood, trimmed with tiny rectangles of coloured glass. I was reminded of India and Gambia, stirred together. Passengers flagged the bus down and got off as they wished, often unnoticed by the driver. Cowboys – wearing the complete outfit of hat, poncho, blanket and saddle over the shoulder – sat astride their horses or mules to form part of the convoy of buses and lorries heading towards Asuncion.

Poignant Concepcion

“We are too poor for postcards” they told me in the general store in Concepcion, our next destination. The inhabitants are slightly coy, and a lovely peace pervades this little town. In the Post Office they had run out of stamps due to a rush of tourists: there were the four of us this month, and two last month, they told us with excitement. When the new consignment arrived later in the day, the sale of each single stamp was duly entered into a hand-written ledger after the letter had been weighed on old-fashioned balance scales. We were lucky; the stamps were only flown in from Asuncion once a month. Lunchtime closing here was from eleven to one thirty, so we wandered down to the port.

Unloading cargo

A human chain was unloading a wooden-planked riverboat, stacking ox and bull carts, or horse-drawn, gypsy-style covered wagons, with goods from down river. A grove of pomegranate, orange and lime trees gave us shade as we watched the well-practised routine, the river shimmering like mercury around the boat’s hull.

It was hot and sunny in the partly covered market. Stallholders prepared food on outdoor stoves for shoppers and workers alike. On sale were shoes, clothing, fruit, herbs, meat, fish, tubs of lard, and sausage skins. Gauchos on horseback picked their way through the crowds, whilst boy soldiers directed the ‘traffic’ with shrill whistles. A secretarial agency, open to the street, housed three weather-beaten old ladies tapping away onto manual typewriters. Along the unfinished road  buses, cycles, carts, pickups and motorbikes wove around piles of ochre soil.  We aroused curious stares, but not a trace of hostility.

We lay in the cool courtyard of our hotel until it was time to go for a long walk out into the countryside to do some bird watching. Outside the hotel door lay the body of a small anaconda. I strolled over to the soldier on guard outside the bank.  He had been there for almost eighteen hours.

“You have been here all night and all day?” I enquired

“Oh yes, it is my job” he said. After a few moments he revealed that he thought we had been sent by the government to watch him.

Yet I felt safe in Concepcion. The gentle, soft faces of the Guaraní people inspired tranquillity, a sense of eternity. These are people who live with, and smell of, their animals. When we departed early next day, the scene at the terminal took my breath away. A lone cowboy sat on a fence, his horse and cart behind him. Morning dew glistened on the grass. A diffused light bathed the low terminal building in a fragile silver web. Giant lilies edged the shining stillness of the river.  It was with a really heavy heart that I boarded our bus to cross the flat, low-lying land between here and the next border.

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