Lets Do The Time Warp Again, Return To Paraguay

March 07, 2016  •  1 Comment

Post-modern chaos, Ciudad del Este, our first view of Paraguay after almost forty years.

Feb 11- 17,  “Asuncion del Paraguay, capital de mis amores”

                                                                            -Paraguayan folk song


Leaving Argentina, Brazil and the crowds of tourists behind, our next destination was Asuncion, Paraguay. Our first glimpse of this small, isolated but proud country was when we arrived there in June, 1976 after a long flight from New England on a Braniff Airways’ 707. Never having lived farther than twenty miles from where I was born, I had been hired to teach science at the American School of Asuncion by then-director Dr. Jim Stimson. I was 27 and Shelley 25. Little did we know that this would be the beginning of our twenty-seven year careers of teaching and living overseas. Because of this, Paraguay has always held a special place in our hearts, and we always wanted to return for a visit. 


This was to be a homecoming of sorts, a step back in time as well as a chance to see how much the country had changed since we left in December, 1979. It was also an opportunity to re-connect with old friends and former students who are now adults with their own families. There would no doubt be a lot of emotions associated with this part of our journey.


The main entry point to Paraguay on the east side of the country is a bridge over the Rio Parana and through Ciudad del Este, a border boom town. The last time we passed that way, the city was called Puerto Presidenté Stroessner after the notorious dictator who ruled this little landlocked country from 1954 until he was booted out by another military general in 1989. Back then it had a reputation for smuggling tax free items like cigarettes and booze into Brazil and Argentina; apparently its reputation hasn’t changed all that much except that it’s little, open-fronted shops have evolved into massive multi-storied malls which cater to Brazilian and Argentine tourists intent on saving money on anything from flat screen TV's to fine cigars. It was a five-hour bus ride west from Ciudad del Este to Asuncion, and because of all the commercial development along the roadside, it wasn’t until about an hour into the trip that I began to recognize the Paraguayan campo landscape of my memories. Rolling green fields with the occasional herd of cows, small stuccoed houses nestled in a grove of shady mango trees under which the residents could be seen gathered in multi-generational groups drinking tereré, one of Paraguay’s national symbols. It’s a drink made from cold water poured into yerba maté and sipped through a metal straw called a bombilla. It has a strong herbal flavor, we used to call it "swamp water", but it is the most refreshing elixir on a hot tropical day. I still like to imbibe in a cup of tereré when we get the inevitable tropical heat wave during New England's Summer.


The bus made several stops along the way to discharge and pick up passengers. I think it was in a city called Coronel Oviedo that a lady boarded the bus with a large basket filled with a donut shaped chewy corn bread called chipa. We bought three for 2000 Guaranies, about 35 cents. They were fresh, warm and tasted better than I remembered them to be.

By nightfall the bus slowed with the traffic as we entered the congested “suburb” of San Lorenzo. This was our introduction to the first evidence of the major developmental changes to the country and its economy — the number of private cars on the road. Unfortunately traffic jams are now an irritable reality of life in Asuncion, the nearly deserted streets of the sleepy little backwater city we once knew are now smothered by rivers of cars. We arrived to the Asuncion bus station a little after seven and were greeted by our friend Graciana, who as a young woman worked in the library at the American School, and former student Gloria. They were to be our hostesses over the next few days. We were humbled by their warmth, generosity and hospitality; words cannot express our appreciation for all that they did for us during our stay. 


Some highlights from our return to Paraguay:

-The gathering of former American School students at the Alamo Restaurant on Friday night. It was terrific to see what wonderful adults they had become and to hear about their families, careers and stories of other former students who couldn’t be present at the event. It is very difficult to express in words the thoughts and emotions that a teacher has when meeting his students after so many years. To know them as teenagers and then to meet them as adults, to hear of their lives and to be able to exchange stories from our collective past was extremely emotional and reaffirming to me of the wonder, luck, beauty and joy that life's sometime's random choices can ultimately be manifest as such positive and memorable outcomes.


-Our trip to Luque, Areguá and San Bernardino in a rented car on Sunday. We hardly recognized Luque, but it is still the place to buy intricate silver filagree jewelry. The heart of Areguá looked pretty much the same, beautiful old houses, some restored, but there was so much more development on the edges of what was once a sleepy little compo town. Most of our time in San Bernadino was spent at the beautiful home of former student and professional musician and luthier, Renato Bellucci and his lovely wife Belen. The highlight of the afternoon was to listen to Renato play, on one of the guitars he so artistically crafted, “Cavatina” by John Williams as the late afternoon sunlight bathed the room with an orange glow.


-Revisiting the American School and touring the campus. When we taught their in the ‘70s there were about 400 students in grades K-12; now it’s pushing close to 680. It was heartening to see some parts of the campus were basically the same or only slightly modified from when we were there, including my classroom and the art room. There were also many new buildings — a gym, new cafeteria and classrooms — all to be expected in a growing school in a growing country.


-Thanks to another wonderful Paraguayan friend Georgina, we were able to 

find the cozy little house that we lived in from ’77-79 on Avenida Bruselas. It was still standing in spite of the massive amount of change and development that surrounded it.


-A stop for empanadas and caldo de pescado at the Lido Bar on Avenida Palma in downtown Asuncion and café helado at the Bolsi Bar.


-The free museum at the Cabildo, Paraguay’s old legislative building.


-Walking near deserted and quiet streets in and around Plaza de la Libertad on Saturday evening. The skateboarders on Palma and a Somos Gay rally in the plaza certainly would have been unthinkable during the Stroessner era.


-The new Costenera park and boulevard along Asuncion’s riverfront. This wide and open space is a thoughtful complement to the continual growth and expansion of the city.


-Being invited to view the inside of the national cathedral, which was closed to the public that afternoon, by a sweet lady who let us in through the back door.


-Meeting with former student and now artist, photographer and philosopher Carlos Bittar who so generously gave me a signed copy of his latest book Fin del Zona Urbano. a brilliant commentary on the consequences of the development and growth in Paraguay. 


-Dinner at the Club Centenario with friends on our last night in Paraguay. A delicious and fitting end to a trip we had dreamed about doing for years.


Final Thoughts:

-Our timing as far as the weather in Paraguay wasn’t so good; most days were hovering around 100 degrees Fahrenheit with 95% humidity. I don’t ever recall experiencing such extremes when we lived there. It was so hot, even the locals were complaining about it. The intense heat sure made touring a challenge. We just had to learn to live in our sweat.



I never got to see any Paraguayan folk music performed live. Actually didn’t hear as much as we used to when walking the streets in Asuncion. Usually there was a radio playing it some somewhere within hearing distance. It was the soundtrack for my Paraguayan experience back then. The globalized music scene seems to have supplanted it with a combination of Latin pop and Anglo pop. The rhythms now are more upbeat and electric, gone are the melodic harmonies of the acoustic guitar, the distinctive sound of the strings of the Paraguayan harp and vocals sung in Guarani, the indigenous first language of Paraguay  — something very sweet lost there.


We didn’t get farther away from the capital into the campo, would like to have gotten out to the waterfalls at Chololó or the campo town Villarrica, maybe next time.

Farmacia Catedral, one of the classic business establishments on Avenida Palma in central Asuncion. It couldn't compete with the modern chains of pharmacies now throughout the city and recently closed. It is now a museum of medical instruments.

This is how it looked in the late 70's 

Another classic building from Asuncion's Belle Epoch

Paraguay was the first country in South America to build a railroad back in the 1850's. This is the central train station. During our time here in the '70s we used to catch the wood-fired steam train here and spend the day riding out to the campo towns just for the adventure.

One of the steam locomotives that used to run from the station out to the campo, I made this image in 1977. 

A view from the pilot's seat.

Another image that I made on one of those train trips to the campo in the late 70's. On this particular journey the crew let me ride up front in the cab of the locomotive, it was the dream of every kid who ever owned an electric train. 

The legendary Lido Bar on Avenida Palma in central Asuncion with a fresh coat of paint and a new sign.

Another time-warp view from back in the day... 

Surprisingly the interior of the Lido Bar hasn't changed as much as the exterior.

The friendly cashier at the Lido Bar.

The money changers were still out in force on Avenida Palma.

The colorful San Jeronimo barrio of Asuncion.

A public testimony of gratitude and faith.

A father and his son on a very hot day in Barrio San Jeronimo

A remedio, medicinal herbs, vendor in Plaza Uruguaya.

A trio of Paraguayitas in Plaza Uruguaya

Skaters on Avenida Palma on a Saturday afternoon when the weekend siesta begins. Eighty percent of Paraguay's population is under thirty-five years old.

Keeping the peace and tereré make a good pair.

Some serious checkers in the Plaza de La Libertad.

Flowers for a wedding in the Cathedral.

The Metropolitan Cathedral completed in 1845

It was a bit nostalgic to see a Number 30 bus. I used to take this route to and from the center of the city and where we lived, which was then out on the edge of the city.

The "30 Bus" of the late '70s.

This is an image I made of a young recruit inside the number 30 bus back in the late '70s. The buses could be very crowded back then; I noticed not so much now. It must be because so many more people own cars now.

The weather was extremely hot when we were in Asuncion this time.  These kids had the perfect solution. 

"All you need is love." These two ladies were preparing for the Somos Gay rally that was taking place in the Plaza de La Libertad that night, Valentine's Day.

This flyer was a sobering reminder of the vicissitudes of life.

Styling at the Pettirossi Market

The basket shop at the Pettirossi Market, Asuncion's open air central market.

Armadillo shell, cayman tail, snake skin or remedial herbs, Pettirossi market is a one-stop shopping place.

When we lived here, we would go to the Pettirossi Market every Saturday morning to buy our fresh fruits and veggies. We noticed they now sell a lot more clothes and consumer goods, much of which wasn't available back then.

A chiperia, a chipa vendor, chipa is a chewy baked donut-shaped bread that is made of corn flour, cheese, eggs, starch, oil or lard, and a tiny bit of anise.

A view of the new Costenera Park and highway along the Rio Paraguay.

The Presidential Palace built by the infamous dictator Marscal Lopez in 1857.

The unmarked monument created from the broken pieces of a statue of the dictator General Alfredo Stroessner. After the coup which removed him from power in 1989, a large statue that he had installed in another part of the city, was toppled and cut into pieces. It's parts were then cast into a concrete block held down by metal rebar which seemed an appropriate symbol and reminder of the thirty-five years that Paraguay endured his oppressive rule.

We found this wall covered with the most imaginative and colorful graffiti art in a new park  near the river on the southern side of the city.

This is the view of the park that is 180 degrees opposite the graffiti wall. The park was deserted and needed some maintenance, but offered a great view of the river and the Chaco on the opposite shore.

Just having a little fun in the Cabildo Museum which once was the site of the legislature, which in Paraguay means that it didn't get a lot of use over the years of its many dictatorships. By the way, Paraguay is now a functioning democracy with an elected president and legislature.

You can see more of the black and white analog images I made while living in Paraguay during he Stroessner era in the '70s here:  http://www.paulgriffin-photos.com/p629237076






Totally hope you bought one of those "designer" jackets, Paul. Loved looking at the photos and hearing about the reminiscing of then and now.
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