Friday, August 5, 2011

Asunción & Itagua - Paraguay

The journey took about seven hours and we were constantly stopping to let people on and off especially all manner of vendors from kids flogging chewing gum to women carrying gigantic baskets of bread.  Arriving in Asunción, we took another bus to the centre and hopped off when a local told us to.  A ten minute walk or so took us to our hostel which was run by an old lady and her family.  The place was pleasant enough and we met Yannis from Essex who had a bit of a date and wanted us to accompany him to a British bar.  We were a bit tired but it would be good to get out and see a bit of the town so we decided to join him.  The bar was excellent and incredibly cheap in comparison to going out in Chile, Argentina and Uruguay.  There was a lot of British memorabilia around and the bar got extremely busy with locals as it got later.  After a few glasses of Pilsner, Yannis’ date arrived with her friend.  We grabbed some food and it wasn’t long until we were joined by the Dutch girls we had also briefly met in our hostel.  It was a bit of a late one but lots of fun and plenty of cash left in the wallet the next day.

In the British bar
Our first full day began wandering around the city, beginning with the nearby Plaza de Uruguay where we tried to make sense of the sheer amount of people living here in makeshift shelters of bin bags and other cheap materials.  The local choice for cheap eats was a supermarket just off the plaza which had a ‘pay what it weighs’ buffet upstairs.  Naturally, we had more than we could eat so took the rest outside to a grateful family living in the plaza which also gave me a chance to chat to them.  At first we thought they were protestors but they were all simply homeless.  The father of the family I spoke to was an articulate man who said that it wasn’t political, there simply wasn’t support for families who couldn’t find work.  There was a large but unimposing police presence which meant that it didn’t feel dangerous but it was bizarre that it was perfectly acceptable to turn the plaza into a permanent camp for the homeless.   There was even what appeared to be an aid truck parked alongside the plaza that allowed the kids to play on it whilst the military/police stood around chatting.

Goldfish seller in the town center

The homeless in Plaza Uruguay

We continued our walk around town to the Avenida Republica where there were kids occupying themselves by flying a kite, or trying to untangle it from a tree actually.  Looking out towards the waterfront offered more of an insight into the sheer amount of poverty here.  There was a myriad of corrugated iron shanty houses stretching all the way to the water.  There were smartly dressed, what you might call professional people walking through so I imagined that either it wasn’t very dangerous or that some people even commuted from here to work in the city.

Kids on the aid truck

Our final activity of the day meant visiting the much cleaner and more sophisticated Plaza de Heroes where we bought a Coca-Cola and chilled out by the statue.  We were amazed that the square even had free Wi-Fi.  There were a group of girls playing and running around the statue who were interested in Kate’s camera, they seemed like really good friends and were very happy to have their pictures taken.  We thought as a little gift we would find a shop to get their photo developed and luckily there was a Kodak outlet a couple of streets away.  Fifteen minutes later we came back with a photo for each of the five girls that they will hopefully keep forever.  That evening we hung out with Yannis at the hostel and talked about his experience teaching in China which he had done for a year before coming to South America.  

With my new friends in the Plaza de Heroes

The photo we had printed and gave a copy to each of the girls

We later played with the bored granddaughter in the hostel who’s favourite game involved stealing and hiding Kate’s glasses whereupon Kate would pretend that she was unable to see, the little girl and I then teaming up to feed Kate various items pretending that they were delicious when actually they were paper and other household items.  It was also possible to check our Couchsurfing request although not from the hostel.  The old lady had said there would be free Wi-Fi yet the free Wi-Fi appeared to belong to next door and they had since put on a password.  She was a crafty one and mentioned that tomorrow it would work when obviously it wouldn’t!  We had had our request accepted yet we felt we still had more to do here before heading to where 'Ever' lived about twenty kilometres from the centre.  We responded that we would like to meet up the day after the next, as we had planned to go to Itaguá, a town renowned for its work with wool and it was supposedly having a festival at present.  It was only an hour bus ride from town so seemed worth a day trip. 

The bus ride to Itaguá was a little bit mental; the buses serve as noisy, uncomfortable metal shells with an engine underneath.  Riding on one is an exciting if not somewhat harrowing experience owing to the noise from your own engine and the fact that they are like ovens but opening the windows subsequently lets the noise and fumes from the heavy traffic in.  There were countless people hopping on and with permission from the driver athletically ducking under the turnstiles to sell things, fighting their way through the crowded aisles offering plastic cups of fresh orange juice from a gigantic container or Coca-Cola opened and poured from the bottle and more random things such as garlic cloves, bags of onions, even homemade cakes.  In Itaguá our stroll took us to a lovely ice cream shop where we sat outside on stools, lapping away frantically before they melted in the hot sun. 

There was a small market where we had some banter with the vendor and learned some traditional Guaraní, the native Paraguayan tongue before the Spanish conquistadors had their way.  I bought some boxer shorts even though they accused of being German, they think any fair people are German here because following World War II many Nazis accused of war crimes settled here as well as there being original ‘Mennonite’ settlers prior to this.  Not being able to find anything else of much interest, we went to a friendly café/bar and had a couple of beers and empanadas before getting the return bus to town.  We took a taxi that night to our new Couchsurfing host ‘Ever’.  On the way we got chatting to Christian the taxi driver and he ended up inviting us to parrilla at his house on Sunday to watch Paraguay play Brazil in the Copa America.  That evening we met Ever, a very confident and laid back Paraguayan and we went out for an excellent local pizza, very cheap too for a restaurant at 30,000 Guarani’s (about a fiver) for a large pizza and a massive bottle of coke to share.

Ever's parrot outside our room

It was a very relaxing day at Ever’s house, aside from waking up to parrot squawks and it was nice to have some space in the courtyard whilst he got on with his work in the office attached to his house.  His whole family was involved in importing goods from China and selling them either wholesale or to private customers, this had proved profitable to them as they had a lovely house.  It was a big weekend for football as there would be the quarter finals of the Copa America and that evening we watched Peru beat Columbia and I won a few quid on an online bet.  The bigger match was to follow so we went on a supermarket run for food and drinks and then watched the bitter rivals Argentina play Uruguay, the latter winning on penalties after Tevez’s poor effort from the spot. 

That night Ever had arranged for us all to go to a popular ‘Irish Bar’ to watch some live music and have some fun.  It was a very busy area for bars and clubs, the locals swarmed the area and it took a long time to find a parking space.  Although it was usually a safe area, Ever was cautious on parking as he had had his car stolen from here the week before.  The standard South American street parking system was in force, this involves paying some money to an unofficial, downtrodden-looking fellow who wandered up and down the street in return for assumed ‘protection’ of your vehicle.  In reality this was a bit of a scam because bad stuff still happened to people’s cars and the unofficial attendant would be nowhere to be seen yet this seemed to be the status quo across the continent.  In some places the wardens had radios, high visibility vests and looked more like an official operation yet in the most part they were a simply opportunists or the equivalent of beggars. 

The Irish Bar was packed, there were no seats spare because as Ever told us, you needed to book a table in advance if you wanted to sit down.  The band consisted of three people, a guitarist, a drummer and a singer along with a backing track playing mostly British covers like Oasis and U2.  They were very fond of the megamix i.e. starting with a song from a band and merging in a few of their other songs in the same track.  It was all good fun and the locals were singing along energetically and although there wasn’t much room for it there was even a bit of dancing.  We stopped by a lomito stand (steak burger with all the trimmings) for the best munchies food on the way back to Ever’s, it was all in all a really great night!

The band in the Irish bar

Ever and I

On the Sunday we had a lie in even though at the same time there was the loudest thunder I had ever heard in my life.  It sounded like the sky was ripping in half and the rain was really hammering down as it did for most of the day.  Ever’s brother, Lewis drove us to the Supermarket to get some food for lunch and that evening’s Brazil versus Paraguay football match.  We bought lots of pizza, some chicken and crisps to share around.  Although Christian the taxi driver had invited us to his house for a parilla, the weather was awful and Ever was having some friends round of his own so we would stay loyal to our Couchsurfer and enjoy the big match at his.  Paraguay beat Brazil on penalties in the most shocking penalty shootout tally ever following what was an exciting match.  One of Ever’s friends is Brazilian and she was suitably upset.  Following this we watched a recording of Ever’s 6-a-side football team playing so they could look on areas of improvement as they would be playing again tomorrow. 

The downpour on the way to the supermarket

Ever's dogs and the guard dog in the background

There was an exposition currently in town that Ever recommended we visit.  It was a bit complicated to find the right bus but we got there in the end.  The exhibit was showcasing, in the most part, award winning cattle but it also had a range of promotional exhibits sometimes hosted by young ladies not wearing so much.  A lot of the cattle were massive, much bigger than anything I had ever seen in person.  There were also a couple of barns full of award winning horses but the highlight for me was bumping into a few local friends in one of the barns; there were some Jersey cows amongst other European breeds renowned for the quality of their milk.  

Cow model posing for a photograph

The best of the bunch

It wasn't all about cattle, here they were promoting games

We enjoyed looking at the various exhibits but it was soon time to start making our way back.  We had the information of the bus we needed to take on a piece of paper but having waited an hour it didn’t show up.  Ever’s secretary Anna Lisa had offered to help us out if we got into a pickle, so we decided to get a more common bus back into the city centre and find a phone to call her on.  She offered to pick us up straight away and she came (her father was driving) and drove us back to Ever’s before our heroes went back to their own homes.  It was incredibly kind and really helped us out.  That evening I was able to play football with Ever’s team and we managed to win 4 – 3, it was great to be playing again even if I only managed to get on for short appearance towards the end.

Playing with Ever's 6-a-side team

On our last day in Paraguay we said goodbye to Ever, his dogs and his parrot and took the bus to Salta, Argentina from where we had little in the way of expectations but hoped to spend a couple of nights before heading west to San Pedro de Atacama in the north of Chile. 

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