Paraguay is not like other countries. I hear many visitors say: ‘Paraguay is not like the real world.’ Why might this be so? Well, for one thing, it has an unfortunate history filled with wars, blood and death.
The War of the Triple Alliance, fought by Francisco Lopez against the combined forces of Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina between 1865 and 1870, resulted in the death of almost all the male population. At the end boys as young as ten were being forced onto the front lines to be slaughtered. After this was the Chaco War against Bolivia in the 1930’s. The Chaco is still one of the most untamed brutal places on the planet. In the 1930’s it was a cauldron of heat, dirt, malaria and suffocation. People say there were as many deaths from the inhospitable environment as the oppositions bullets. Paraguay won, but the oil everyone believed to be there was not. It was an entirely pointless battle.
The result of all these wars combined with the geography of Paraguay, which is mostly surrounded by the extraordinary Chaco, means it has cut itself off from its neighbours. I believe it is the only country in South America were the indigenous language – Guarani – is the one spoken most commonly by the people. The Paraguayans firmly believe that Guarani is the most beautiful language in the world. And anywhere you stop locals will immediately invite you to learn and use it with them.
Much of the modern history of Paraguay is secret as it is filled with the reign of Stroessner, one of the longest running dictators of the twentieth century (1954 – 1989). Since the 1990’s Paraguay has been trying democracy, with the occasional coup thrown in for old times sake.
One of the biggest traditions in Paraguay is the taking of terere. – “toma terere?” – is a question you will be asked repeatedly throughout anyday you stay in Paraguay. Terere is an iced tea drunk through a metal straw. It is a delicious and vital method of dealing with the heat. Another equally delicious weapon against the sweat of the day is the excellent local beer: Pilsin. Pilsin also plays a strong role in the fiesta. Fiestas are held most weekend nights, and they include everyone from the local communities – from those in their nineties to those who are just learning to walk.
Community is the most important principle of Paraguay. While the modern world involves rushing and advancing the average Paraguayan prefers to sit, toma terrera, and talk. When you are invited to do this – in the early evening, as the young boys race their horses bare back along the dirt roads and the vast burning sun drops out of the sky, maybe you will think that it is a blessing, that Paraguay remains ‘not of the real world.’
For more information I recommend the following books:
The News from Paraguay by Lily Tuck.
At the tomb of the inflatable pig by John Gimlette.
Travels with my Aunt by Graham Greene
Or, of course, you can go and stay at El roble and read Peters’ copies while you experience the land of which they talk and drink your terere through the metal straw.