On the Eastern edge of the Gran Chaco plains embalmed in a hot semi-arid climate, lies Asunción, Paraguay. Paraguay borders Argentina, Bolivia and Brazil and they are the small country's major trading partners. It is a tiny landlocked country with an approximate population of 6.3 million inhabitants, predominantly of mestizo origin - people of mixed European and Native ancestry. There are also several indigenous settlements throughout the country and a small Mennonite community with some allegiance to Canada. My father traveled regularly on official visits there as our embassy's jurisdiction in Chile extended to include Paraguay. Canada's official representation in the capital city was through a consulate dealing primarily with assisting Canadian nationals acting as a post office box for development, immigration and trade enquiries which were handled by Santiago . Santiago undertook political duties. I first visited Asunción in 1991, during Brian and my winter break from school. I was excited about visiting this country and uncovering their traditions, accents, and languages. It is the only officially bilingual country in South America, with the recognized languages being Spanish and Guaraní, the proud Chaco warriors mother tongue. The Paraguayan National Football teams usually communicates on the pitch in Guarani as the language does not resemble that of any of its regional rivals.
|Flag of Paraguay, adopted in 1988 from similar adaptations|
During our time in Asuncion, we stayed at the Hotel Guarani, a great central location with a spectacular view of the Paraguay River from the window of our room. The elegant decor and pricey amenities remain a bargain as the cost of living there is relatively cheap compared to many other places in the world. I recall initially being in shock as I searched through the mini-bar item list and every item on it was valued in the thousands in the domestic currency, also named the Guaraní. Of course, being a 10 year-old boy and with both my parents providing for a responsible lifestyle, I did not understand the concept alue of exchange rates. I was familiar with the Chilean peso, the Paraguayan Guarani, the US dollar, but rates were a tough concept to grasp. As I continued to investigate prices, I decided against enjoying the services provided by our tiny fridge. I did not want to bring recession to the family finances. Upon taking to the streets around our hotel, I noticed the local money was secondary in merchant exchange as most vendors and shopkeepers gladly accepted US cash. If there was some component of English in the local culture, it was the American dollar. I suppose that during our visit to the Chaco nation, inflation could have being alarmingly high and devaluating the currency that a more stable one was welcome. I had never seen a foreign currency so widely in use anywhere else in the past.
Shopping in Paraguay was another bargain. People would come from neighbouring countries to purchase leather jackets, artisan handicrafts.The copyright laws were flexible. The country had a reputation for quality imitations and stolen items for sale. The shops surrounding the hotel had their own exceptional flair. Most of the businesses appeared to be managed by Koreans immigrants - a significant Korean diaspora was established between 1975 and 1990 - who could barely communicate with us in Spanish. I wondered if their Guarani was any better. They carried all sorts of interesting merchandise and gadgets. My parents bought two small radios for Brian and I to enjoy our cassettes as we had begun to acquire a taste for Guns N' Roses, MC Hammer, Roxette and Vanilla Ice. Poke fun all you like but we all had our guilty pleasures. My Maman and Dad were not counting on the poor manufacturing standards at the time of these emerging industrial Asian powers, but the radios did not last long after we had returned home. Other nearby stores sold popular video games for consoles such as Atari and Nintendo and Brian and I found Ninja Gaiden. Every kid dreamed of owning this game. My father had spotted an obscure Sumo Wrestling game and purchased it as a great addition to our gaming collection. The fun part of these games was plugging them into our console and the dialogue and text was in Japanese. The Sumo game itself was impossible to understand, seemed never ending but provided many laughs.
Street vendors, a common factor in most major urban centres throughout Latin America, were abundant in Asuncion. The Paraguayans were incredible salespeople. You could see a guy standing on a street corner selling leather jackets and as soon as it began to rain, he would instantly replace his stock with umbrellas and rain coats. What an amazing talent. On one of our recon walks around the city, a man approached us in an attempt to sell us wristwatches. He was offering Cartier, Longines, Rolex and other high scale brands at blow out prices. At first glance, it was easy to notice the watches were esthetically pleasing imitations. It was difficult to determine if the craftsmanship regarding the internal mechanisms was of superior quality. This aspect is a key bargaining tool with the salesperson. The law of the town was negotiation. Sticker prices were non-existent. If you end up paying $25 USD for a watch on the street, you would (become a so-called)be branded a "sucker". My generous father bought us each a fabulous cheap watch which we wore immediately. I was so happy with mine and could not keep from checking the time every step I took. I cannot remember what brand imitation it was, but it was digital and even had a marking stating it was waterproof. However, once we were in our hotel to clean-up for dinner, I remember washing my hands in the bathroom before heading out wearing my brand new accessory, and it turned out not to be waterproof. I was so disappointed.
|Maman, Brian and I in front of the Palacio de los Lopez|
Most of the population resided in humble abodes but were proud hard-working people. We observed this while making our way to visit many of the principal city attractions. The Palacio de los Lopez is the official seat of national government and the workplace of the president. This beautiful white colonial building was surrounded by peaceful well-maintained gardens and bushes crafted into small spheres. I imagine my father must have entered this palace when accompanying the Canadian ambassador to present his credentials to the President Andrés Rodríguez. Visitors to this city could also walk down Calle Palma, where Spanish colonial buildings still stand for history buffs to absorb. I thought the architecture was quite spectacular and welcomed local and foreign pedestrians alike. The former Asuncion Central Train Station was another location not to miss. It had become almost a railway museum where most trains were outdated wood-burning relics from the late 1800s. They ran passengers and freight South to the Argentine border. They were extremely expensive to maintain yet amusing to watch. Most commercial and industrial transportation was taken over by boats and trucks. Lastly, we spent some time reacquainting with the animal kingdom in the zoo. My most notable memory was a large bird who seemed to hold the world record for leaving its manure in the same huge pile.