Whereaguay? First impressions Of Paraguay, South America’s Most Underrated Country

terereEver notice how die-hard travelers tend to compare places to other places? Like, constantly? It may be annoying, but it goes beyond mere aesthetics. It’s often a reference point; a way to describe not only the feel of a destination, but the spirit of its people.

I arrived in Paraguay (yes, you’ll need a map) at 4 a.m. yesterday. Despite having traveled much of South America over the past decade, I confess that until six weeks ago, the only things I knew about Paraguay were that it’s often confused with vacation hot-spot Uruguay, and that no one appears to go there.

The question of why Paraguay gets dissed by travelers is one our Gadling editor, Grant Martin, wanted me to explore. And while I’ve only been in the country for roughly 36 hours, I’ve already been asking myself the same thing. What on earth is keeping Paraguay from being the new Brazil? This place is amazing.

Paraguay is roughly the size of California and is sandwiched between Brazil and Argentina. To the north lies Bolivia. The country is divided into departments, and the Rio Paraguay snakes up the central half of the country (its waist, if you will). The river has traditionally been crucial to economic trade and transportation, given the country’s monsoonal climate. Now, however, new roads are being created or paved, and it seems the era of the riverboat may eventually come to an end in Paraguay. Based upon my brief experiences traveling here, however, let’s just say the age of modern transportation hasn’t yet arrived. One sees many horse carts in the streets of Concepcion, besides cars (although scooters are the main form of transit).

Given its location, comparisons to parts of Brazil are inevitable. Paraguay is very flat, and has a similar sweltering climate and verdant tropical countryside that includes plantations and cattle ranches. The lively capital of Asuncion, with its flowering trees and crumbling colonial decadence bring to mind both Rio and Hanoi.

Many of the villages I passed during an 11-hour bus ride yesterday reminded me of Thailand, because of the late-night buzz of scooters and street food vendors. Every Paraguayan drinks bottomless quantities of yerba mate and tereré (cold mate tea, often spiked with medicinal herbs, above), more familiar to those who have spent time in Argentina. Yet the empanadas, a staple here, make that country’s version look woefully anemic.But that’s where the comparisons end. In the brief time I had to prepare for this trip, I repeatedly read that what makes Paraguay different are two key things: it’s South America’s only bilingual country (the second language is Guarani, which refers to its dominant, omnipresent indigenous culture), and the people are renown for their warmth, hospitality and generosity. This, I can already verify, yet it’s only part of what’s already charmed me about this oft-overlooked, yet complex country.

Paraguay, like all of South America, has a history of political turmoil and indigenous conflict. Originally a Spanish colony, in 2011 it celebrated its bicentennial as an independent nation. And despite the lack of vast natural resources found in neighboring Bolivia, Brazil and Argentina (not necessarily a bad thing, as you’ll learn in my forthcoming post on the silver mines of Potosi, Bolivia), Paraguay gets by.

It’s allegedly the second poorest country in South America, after Bolivia (see where all those minerals get you?), but retains the strongest indigenous culture. Most of the populace has some mixed blood because the Spanish saw no reason to wipe out existing tribes to plunder natural resources that didn’t exist. Rather, they took many of the Guarani women as wives, and today Paraguay has a very identifiable mestizo culture, as well as strong folkloric beliefs and distinct indigenous crafts such as ao po’i lace and ceramics.
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Despite my initial enchantment, I believe it’s not only naive, but irresponsible for travelers (or writers) to think they can know a country or culture in just a few days, weeks or months. Perhaps we can never really understand if we’re not of it. But that shouldn’t stop us from learning about a place and developing informed opinions.

As travelers/tourists, we should ideally resist the urge to make snap judgments. Why, for example, do all of the many banks in Concepcion, the river port I’m now in, have casually armed guards out front? It’s like walking through an artillery; Paraguay is obviously very dangerous (for the record: it’s not). My assumption is that because Concepcion is the last town along the Rio Paraguay that’s “easily” accessible by paved road, it’s a critical point of commerce. The department is a crucial agricultural and cattle ranching region. Hence, the “don’t-fuck-with-us” posturing.

Semi-automatics aside, Concepcion also conjures for me romantic images of Indonesia, Hawaii and Brazil. And Asuncion seems a glorious city of flowering trees, gardens and decaying colonials. There are street vendors hustling chipa (the staple bread made with corn flour and cheese), handcrafted jewelry, fruit, tereré and yuyos (medicinal herbs), but overall, it’s the tranquilo pa (Guarani for “it’s all good”) attitude and the warmth of the people that have got me hooked.

Ten days isn’t enough to know a country, but sometimes, it takes just 10 seconds to know if it’s won your heart. Paraguay has mine.

[Photo credits:terere, Flickr user julianboliche; horse, guard, Laurel Miller]

It’s time travel writers stopped stereotyping Africa

Africa, africaPop quiz: where was this photo taken?

OK, the title of this post kind of gives it away, but if I hadn’t written Africa, would you have guessed? It was taken in Dar es Salaam, the capital of Tanzania. This isn’t the view of Africa you generally get from the news or travel publications–a modern city with high rises and new cars. A city that could be pretty much anywhere. That image doesn’t sell.

And that’s the problem.

An editorial by Munir Daya for the Tanzanian newspaper The Citizen recently criticized Western media coverage of Africa, saying it only concentrated on wars, AIDS, corruption, and poverty. Daya forgot to mention white people getting their land stolen. If black people get their land stolen, you won’t hear a peep from the New York Times or the Guardian. If rich white ranchers get their land stolen, well, that’s international news. And look how many more articles there are about the war in Somalia than the peace in Somaliland.

Daya was objecting to an in-flight magazine article about Dar es Salaam that gave only superficial coverage of what the city has to offer and was peppered with statements such as, “Dar es Salaam’s busy streets are bustling with goats, chickens, dust-shrouded safari cars, suit-clad office workers and traders in colourful traditional dress.”

Daya actually lives in the city and says you won’t find many goats and chickens on the streets. But that wouldn’t make good copy, would it?

Travel writing has an inherent bias in favor of the unfamiliar, the dangerous. Some travel writers emphasize the hazards of their journey in order to make themselves look cool, or focus on the traditional and leave out the modern. Lonely Planet Magazine last year did a feature on Mali and talked about the city of Bamako, saying, “Though it is the fastest-growing city in Africa, Bamako seems a sleepy sort of place, lost in a time warp.” On the opposite page was a photo of a street clogged with motorcycle traffic. If Bamako is in a sleepy time warp, where did the motorcycles come from?

I’m not just picking on Lonely Planet; this is a persistant and widespread problem in travel writing and journalism. Writers, and readers, are more interested in guns than concerts, slums rather than classrooms, and huts rather than skyscrapers. In most travel writing, the coverage is simply incomplete. In its worst extremes, it’s a form of racism. Africa’s problems need to be covered, but not to the exclusion of its successes.

As Daya says, “there is more to Africa than famine and genocide.” There are universities, scientific institutes, music, fine cuisine, economic development, and, yes, skyscrapers.

And if you think Dar es Salaam is the exception rather than the rule, check out Skyscrapercity.com’s gallery of African skyscrapers.

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New Age archaeology tours rooted in racism

Last week’s discovery of some tombs of the pyramid builders in Egypt left me a bit confused. The archaeologists triumphantly claimed the tombs prove the builders were hired workmen, not slaves. Slaves wouldn’t have been buried in proper tombs right next to the Pyramids, the resting place of the pharaohs.

I used to be an archaeologist and couldn’t understand what they were crowing about. Archaeologists have long known that hired labor built Egypt’s temples and monuments. During the annual flooding of the Nile the farmers didn’t have much to do because their fields were underwater, so the pharaoh hired them to keep them out of trouble and glorify himself. In fact, a similar set of tombs was discovered in 1990. So what’s the big deal?

Then I remembered. If archaeologists don’t keep repeating the facts, the BS will bury the truth.

I’ve been to a lot of ancient sites, and even more annoying than the touts trying to sell me cheap trinkets are the “spiritual travelers” spouting gibberish about ancient astronauts and Atlantis. You’ve heard the theories. The local people couldn’t possibly have built these impressive remains so they got a helping hand from aliens. Another spin is that all the great archaeological sites are survivals of an ancient civilization. It doesn’t matter that there’s not a shred of real evidence to back these claims; these First World fantasies are much more alluring than the simple truth–dark people speaking strange languages built the most impressive monuments in human history.

These ideas aren’t new. Fingerprints of the Gods, Chariots of the Gods, America B.C., The Lost Continent of Mu, all recycle the same old half-truths, out-of-context “facts”, and outright inventions in their quest to peddle nonsense to a public that should have been given a better education in the first place. New Age archaeology tours have become big business. There’s nothing more annoying than having to elbow your way through one of these wide-eyed herds when in the presence of something truly great like Machu Picchu or Giza.

What many New Agers would be shocked to realize is that their ideas are rooted in colonial racism. Early European explorers and scholars couldn’t believe that “natives” were capable of building the great monuments in places like Egypt, Zimbabwe, and Peru and explained them away by thinking up lost white civilizations or wandering tribes of Europeans. Some modern writers have replaced Aryans with aliens, but the Great White Civilization idea still persists. Do a Google image search on “Atlanteans” and you’ll see what I mean.

So please, throw away the crystals and read some real archaeology books. The archaeologists don’t have all the answers, but at least they’re trying. And I can tell you from ten years in the business that despite what New Agers say, archaeologists aren’t conspiring to hide the truth. Repeat: there is no grand conspiracy.

But I would say that, wouldn’t I? Got to go, Venus is calling.