Claires travel pages
Claires travel pages

Well, all this talk about travels is interesting, but I seem to meet an increasing number of people who stop and ask me the same question: What was it actually like living in Asuncion? As you can imagine, with a country so full of contrasts, the answer is going to be rich and varied. I think that, looking back on it, it was a wonderful experience and that I had a great time there.

Before I left, many of my friends asked me questions along the lines of “Latin America, understandable. But Paraguay? Why Paraguay? There is nothing in Paraguay!” Well, I must admit that before going out there, it was possibly the country I knew least about in Latin America. But a good sense of adventure and a strong taste for doing unusual things and going places not many people go made Paraguay seem like a good idea.

When I first arrived there, I immediately discovered it to be a virtually tourist-free zone. No tourist industry, no travel agents, nothing really. Just local populations going about their daily business. I was lucky to meet another student, Isabelle, who was working out there in the French embassy. She invited me round to the “Pension” where she lived for dinner one night, and to my surprise, I discovered that she lived in what was essentially the equivalent of an independent hall of residence, full of school kids, university students and foreign exchange students of all ages and nationalities. I was offered a room there and accepted it without hesitating.

The Internado Evangélico Alemán

The Internado, as it is more commonly called, is a short bus ride from the centre of town, on a road to the left of the ANDE (Electricity Company) HQ buildings. The location in itself was quite handy since every single taxi driver in town knew where “la Ande” was and so we always got home fairly quickly! The street we lived on was a peaceful residential one, and the Internado was nestled between a couple of luxurious and well-guarded semi-mansions. The guards were for the most part very friendly and seemed to guard the institute as well as their own houses, which was always reassuring.

The Internado itself, which was set in a nice tropical garden, functioned like a big family. The “Evangelico” bit was not really enforced much, although the compound did have its own church that people could go in and use at will. Our monthly pension included a room, 4 meals a day and all electricity / water. They provided us with towels and blankets (Shabby towels and not enough blankets in winter – but better than nothing!). We all had keys to the front gates and were free to come and go at will. There were a number of foreign students living there, mostly Germans studying at the local university on an exchange year and they were good company for weekend travel excursions.

On the whole life there was very pleasant. Most of the local students were from other parts of Paraguay, from Argentina or from Brazil. They spoke a mixture of Spanish, Portuguese and even some Guarani. Living with them was a fantastic blend in cultures and I loved every minute of it. Some of the best moments were spent sitting at a little white garden table next to a big colourful and flowery bush that was often visited by hummingbirds, drinking Téréré or Yerba Maté, depending on the temperature. (The former is basically a cold iced version of the latter). As the focal point in the Pension, there was always someone at the white table to talk to or to play cards with. Afternoons (at weekends) were often spent lying on the well-kept lawn sunbathing and listing to music.

One of my absolute favourite moments though was when sudden tropical storms exploded after a few days of intense build up. These storms, which were preceded by intolerable days of damp atmosphere, just seemed to erupt out of the sky in massive drops of water that sent streams rushing through the streets and could often bring the city to a standstill in minutes. I found these storms incredibly peaceful and often enjoyed lying out on the tiles of the dining room porch, watching the raindrops fall and breathing in the smell of wet earth and freshness that the rain brought with it. And after they had ended, everything always looked so clean and glistening….

Life Outside the Internado

The Instituto was located right next to Paraguay’s football stadium, which proved to be very handy for supporters of the Olimpia football team! Also close at hand was the army’s sports complex (less than 2 mins walk). Here they taught a variety of sports to a very high standard and at ridiculously low prices. Having signed up to Tae-Kwando classes which I went to for 3 hours at a go, 3 times a week, for a mere £5 a month, I was also allowed to use the athletics track at will. This was excellent and not only filled in 3 evenings a week, but also helped me get fitter than I had been for the previous 10 years!

Apart from the sporting side of things, the traditional entertainment in Asunción was, as in most other Latin American cities, was Shopping Malls. The “Shopping” as everyone called these places, were places of social gatherings, full of restaurants, shops and cinemas. But be warned, these cinemas are not what you would expect in European cinemas, well, that is to say, they won’t always show you what you would expect to see… for example, I was most surprised to find that Matrix 3 was not released there at all in most cinemas, and only showed for 1 week in the largest one, way out of time. Why? Quite simply because the cinemas can’t afford to buy the showing rights to such big blockbusters. Personally I found the Shoppings a bit repetitive, but all my “local” friends from the institute loved going there!

Other activities included regular strolls around parts of Asunción, walking along the long tree lined avenues and chatting to the street kids playing football out there. Many parts of town are not really safe to walk around in and one friend of mine once showed me a bullet wound she had received for no reason while walking home from school some months previously. She was not shocked at the idea and said that although she was lucky, there are many random accidents with weapons.

An interesting and regular destination, which we never tired of, was the Mercado 4 that literally sold EVERYTHING! My personal favourites there were the fruit stalls where you could by any imaginable fruit or vegetable, fantastically cheap and fantastically good quality! I particularly enjoyed the Maracuja (Passion Fruit). In all honesty, many foreign people had warned me off going to the Mercado 4, saying that it was dangerous for foreigners. But I found, as did many others, that this was a common misconception that was often cases due to their fear and misunderstanding of the locals and of their way of life. I feel terribly sorry for those who missed out on the delights of this aspect of life in Asunción. I found it so rich and interesting, it fascinated me and I gladly spent hours strolling down the many little paths and roads that zigzagged around the area.

All in all, I would say that there were certain aspects of living here that were not enjoyable. It was so different, so unique, so frustrating at times. Yet I would not change the experience. It was really fantastic. I would not recommended to anyone who likes their comforts and modern gadgets, but if you are happy with living on nothing and with friends being the most important source of entertainment (playing cards and chatting), then you should feel at home here!

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