Landing Feet First in Paraguay
The lapacho tree is blossoming again in Asunción, which marks exactly one year since I embarked on my epic journey in Paraguay. No guidebook, map or research can prepare you for your first week in a foreign country and particularly a destination like Paraguay, but the unexpected was undoubtedly part of all the fun. This little nation does not have the Iguazú Falls, (which it lost when the country surrendered territory to Argentina and Brazil during the War of the Triple Alliance 1865–70) or the Salar de Uyuni salt flat in Bolivia, and it is ironically often confused with the wealthier and not too distant Uruguay. However, what it does have is an incredibly rich culture and an unflagging sense of identity, which gives a curious traveller tonnes to explore. I came to love experiencing the weird and wonderful obscurities of this unknown nation.
As I have said, I cannot attempt to prepare the reader for a trip to Paraguay but I can get you in a necessary frame of mind for the unexpected! I found the currency particularly difficult to get my head around. £1 converts to 7, 500 Paraguayan Guaraní (PYG) and withdrawing £130 worth of Paraguayan Guaraní gave me almost 1 million PYG, and a false and momentary sense of wealth.
With money in my pocket, the next step was getting the right bus to the centre of Asunción. I developed a sort of love hate relationship with the buses in Paraguay. They are brightly coloured on the outside and fabulously ornate on the inside, with religious artefacts and ruffled curtains. In fact, Buenos Aires have brought in a slightly shinier version of these 1980s automobiles as part of a retro revamp of the trendy cosmopolitan city. Riding across Asunción on public transport was not such a pleasurable experience. I stayed far away from the front and back of the doorless bus for fear of tumbling out followed by my huge orange backpack. The complete absence of road signs also made it a little challenging to locate Asunción Palace hotel. I mustered up the courage to ask a teenage boy sitting next to me, who seemed more nervous than I was and told me to get out on Calle Colón.
I found the buses particularly confusing because of the jumble of destinations on the front of the vehicle. That was the first time I encountered the Guaraní language. Paraguayan Guaraní is so widely spoken in Paraguay that it has been awarded status as the official language of the nation since 1992. During my time in Paraguay, I found it a difficult language to pick up as it does not bear any similarity to the Romance languages, but I enjoyed learning a few phrases. If you can churn out a greeting like mba’échapa (how’re you) to a Paraguayan, it will light up their face. It was really quite remarkable how even the younger generation hold a huge sense of pride for their native language.
I have to admit, I was not particularly adventurous with food during my first week. The Guarani names dissuaded me from trying new things and I thought it was too hot for the Sopa Paraguaya on the menu boards of all the restaurants. I later learned it was not in fact soup but a delicious cornbread! When I was wandering around the streets of Asunción, I did however try chipa, thinking it was bread, but is actually a bagel shaped food staple made of cassava starch, cheese, eggs, milk and aniseed. I added peanut butter.
The cultural traditions are not isolated to the countryside and live on in the cities. Tereré is probably the biggest token of Paraguay. It is an infusion of yerba mate, but made with cold water and ice instead of the hot water used in Argentinian mate. It is custom to pass the guampa (containing the tereré) around in a circle and alternate turns to take a sip through the bombilla (a metal straw). Tereré is an immensely social drink and the communal drinking arrangement extends to most beverages, which I later learnt when I rather embarrassingly drank a whole glass of red wine without passing it around at a lunch gathering.
There was no way to get around what I can solidly identify as culture shock upon arriving in Paraguay. You have to dive in head first, equipped with an open mind, a positive attitude and perhaps a Guarani phrasebook! What I can safely assure you is that you will be met by incredibly kind people and their eagerness to show you the unique culture that the country carefully preserves, and make Paraguay a true gem in the heart of South America.