Claires travel pages
Claires travel pages

I found it more difficult to write about Asunción, the place I lived in for just under 5 months, than the places I visited while travelling. I suppose this comes from the fact that you get a different view of a place over a longer period than you do over a quick short visit. I remember that when I first arrived in Asunción, the thing that struck me most was the redness of the earth. Roofs and paths blended in perfectly from the plane above. My first ground impression was of an airy town, with long tree line streets and a whole load of mysteries to discover. Having now lived there and left, I would say that these initial impressions were true, but they concealed a whole different world beneath. Asuncion is a town of many flavours. It must have been beautiful in it’s heyday, but now, lack of foreign investment, economic growth and a corrupt political system have all contributed to the slow sad crumbling image the town now has. I enjoyed living there in a simple way, but it is a very different style of life and the hardships that the country is faced made the experience a valuable one in the short term.

Asunción

One of the most striking things about Asunción is the large variety of smells around the place. Nearly everywhere you go, there is something to smell… smells vary between (from pleasant to unpleasant) fried BBQ chicken or meat being roasted on the streets, other (rarer) varieties of food smells, animals, rotting fruit, thick clouds of exhaust fumes, rotting dustbins, burning rubber or plastic, and other chemicals, sewers (sometimes the sewers run along the side of the street, open to the sky above, now that STINKS), poo (human faeces in the street, not dog, the dogs apparently get eaten by the starving poor so there are not that many wondering around, or so I’m told), and in some areas and possibly the most disgusting of all, urine… everyone seems to pee in the street here, often in the same places which means the smell is very concentrated and overwhelming and usually makes you gag as you walk past. But these moments are quickly overpowered by the smells of barbeques, kebabs and weird looking market stalls.

The next striking thing is the children. So many children running around, grubby and thin, barefooted, playing in the street, selling packets of chewing gum for 1000 Guaranis a piece (about 1 FF or 10 pence). A lot of them have virtually black teeth (if they have any at all)… their clothes hang off them, filthy rags and less filthy rags, but all totally rotten etc… many of them have bellies that stick out a mile, big and round. These kids spend their days on the streets, never in school, they often don’t speak Spanish, they beg (and hardly ever say thank you when you give them anything, ungrateful sods, but mind you, why should they be grateful with what life has thrown at them?). The jump into buses with their merchandise, desperately trying to sell anything to anyone, and if they have nothing to sell they sing (or should I say they imitate in a fairly accurate manner the sound a cat makes when being lifted by the tail). Despite all this, the children still seem to find a way to be happy and run around playfully, daring each other to find better ways to earn money.

Coming back to the buses, one of my favourite topics!! Bus trips are never boring, in fact they are possibly the most interesting and fascinating aspect of life in Asuncion. Every time the bus stops a variety of men and children jump on trying to sell all kinds of things… from chispas (local bread like thing, often with cheese and herbs, the local equivalent of a French croissant I suppose – although that could be a bad comparison since they look and taste nothing like croissants), to watches, to Barbie dolls, to chewing gum, to clothes, shoes, cigarettes, pens, toothbrushes, shoe polish, medicine, etc… the list is long… many more jump on and start narrating their life story (this often lasts a good half hour) and others jump on and preach about how god is wonderful and how he wants you to help his children and share your wealth …. (This actually seems to be a fairly successful method, surprisingly enough)… these people jump on and off buses anywhere, while they are moving, while they are stopped. They are often dressed no better than the street children I described in the previous paragraph… you have to picture all this happening in a rickety smelly noisy bus bouncing up and down over the bumps in the road, roaring (literally roaring – the noise not the speed) though town in a cloud of exhaust, zigzagging between cars, mad taxis and other buses engaged in similar activities, doing emergency stops every time someone pulls the string (yes, here you pull a little string that runs along the length of the roof of the bus and is attached to a little bell or buzzer near the driver when you want to stop, and if that is broken you lean out over the back door steps – the door usually being open – and press a tiny little black button while the driver shoots along in his breakneck pace and threatens to put you off balance and make you tumble out the door…). And everyone hoots at everyone for no apparent reason (taxis hoot in a stationary queue just to show you they want to be moving and its not their fault they are stopped)…. And no one ever stops for a pedestrian, in fact they often seem to accelerate!!

All this activity of course creates a lot of noise and havoc. If its not the mad hooting taxis or the choking roar of the busses, it’s the mingling voices of street salesmen all trying to shout louder than each other, selling an even wider variety of goods on the streets than on the buses. The goods are often fake of course, this is Paraguay after all, one of the world’s leading producers of counterfeited goods. Anything you could possibly want or need is available in the street…. As you walk around, you pass all these stands selling food and drinks, and shoe polishers (kids trying to convince you that you want your BROWN shoes polished in BLACK, yes, really, honest you do!) and the music… I think one memorable thing about Paraguay is the music… when I first arrived it was something I tough I would never get used to but in the end you get used to the sound of cachaka blaring out of every shop, bar and street vendor’s radio… It certainly has its charm in its happy go lucky way and gives the place a very positive and authentic feel.

Shopping, a quick word of warning for anyone who thinks shopping in Paraguay is a bargain: NEARLY EVERYTHING IS FAKE! Even when you go into official Addidas or Nike shops, they are often fakes! And at ridiculous prices!!! Mind you, some of the imitations are very good so you hardly notice the difference, so maybe its worth it if you want the look at a low price and are not too bothered about the quality. I bought an “official” 2003 SA rugby world cup fleece sweatshirt top for a mere 6 UK pounds… it looks perfect, is very comfy and is good quality (rare)… it even has a pretty official label in it with washing instructions (that’s rare)… maybe it is real, I don’t know, if it is it was most probably imported illegally seeing the price it was sold at! Anyways, it kept me warm while I was travelling around!

The last thing I think I shall talk about is the housing… The contrasts between rich and poor areas are incredible. On the one hand you find these huge luxury mansions, and then, right next door, the ghettos. The luxurious mansions, surrounded by high concrete walls topped with barbed wire, are often guarded by a few rottweilers and a fierce looking guard with a rifle (automatic often). They have swimming pools, tropical gardens, gazebos, gigantic gardens and valet service. In contrast, the other part of Asunción is absolutely filled with dilapidated houses, falling to pieces etc… the poor live in roofless houses in the centre or in wooden huts 4x4 build along the edge of rivers, streams (all full of rubbish, pollution and breading bacteria) and the old railways line. They pile in, 10 to a hut, a single room, hanging their pitiful washing out on line between trees in front, everyone running around barefooted, matted hair, grubby etc… All of this of course, packed in between stockyards and a variety of other weird things… no town planning, no organisation…

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