Bird song mixed with bullet fire, mingling in Asunción’s thick morning air. It was my first morning in the Paraguayan capital, and the moth-bitten netting that lay between my bed and the cracked windowpane barely concealed the commotion outside. I watched semi-visible figures rushing through the streets, with loud cries in foreign languages providing few clues.
At this early stage in my South American travels, my Spanish was inadequate. My Guaraní, the primary and indigenous language of Paraguay, was non-existent. Following the gunfire and my own naïve curiosity, I rose and headed in the direction of the chaos. Trampling feet and thrusting limbs and the shrieking of the crowd told me that I was no longer tracing the continent’s beaten track. Here, in Paraguay, unpredictability reigned. Here, in this impassioned riot, unpredictability came with the territory.
Men with machine guns perched on high, swinging one armed from lampposts. They fired their weapons haphazardly – at the sky, the ground, and anything unfortunate enough to stand between the two. They were emboldened by the crying crowds, who thrust overhead handmade signs that I could not read. As bullets reached targets they never intended for, my naivety caught up to me. I was engulfed by the rushing crowd, the screaming sound, the choking smoky soot. It was time to leave. Time to flee, to slip down an alley, and to pretend I had never arrived.
I looked for an English speaker, someone who could compensate for my woeful local language skills. This brought me to an older German man. He sat sullen in a faintly wobbling wooden chair, his high white cheekbones and flop of blonde hair distinctive against the chipped red paint of the bodega wall. He dragged his cigarette slowly before speaking to me, pointedly ignoring the riotous street.
“It’s a teacher’s strike”, he told me.
Cacophonies of gunfire made dirt smeared glass frames rattle against the bodega walls. A teacher’s strike in Paraguay, it seemed, was quite unlike any teacher’s strike I had seen before.
I pressed him. I asked what he thought would happen, how he saw today ending, whether further violence would ensue.
“The city will burn, I guess.”
He shrugged, took another drag of his cigarette, and turned away from me.
Before reaching Asunción, I had travelled from Paraguay’s Brazilian border. The city was crazier, faster, more intense. The guns and the crowds and the pace of the chaos could not be compared to the hinterland, but they stemmed from the legacies of violence that are prevalent across South America’s landlocked centre.
As is the case for much of the Latin American population, the modern population of Paraguay is largely descended from the country’s indigenous people. Yet, this has not quelled the rampant and vicious discrimination targeted towards the native Guaraní population. As late as the 1970s, eight out of ten Paraguayans were recorded as agreeing with the statement that the indigenous population were not equivalent to humans. They were hunted and sold and exploited by structures of contemporary slavery in Caaguazü, Alta Paraná, and the Chaco well into the 20th century. The scars of the ‘Guaraní soul’, so exalted in Paraguayan song and story, are visible in these regions today.
I had sought out these regions, long abandoned by the lucrative Gringo trail, before the events in Asunción unfolded. I had ricocheted from my seats in rickety tin can buses, as they struggled over slapdash jungle roads, attempting to learn something, anything, about the curious country. No other traveller I met had ventured beyond the border towns, and Paraguay’s hinterland was a mystery to me.
I crossed the land border into Paraguay in the Alta Paraná region, one of Paraguay’s most popular. It is here that Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina meet, where the roars of Iguazu permeate even the urban evening thrum. I had bounced over the Friendship Bridge from Brazil in a collectivo bursting with overladen bags and slumbering shoppers, unsure what to expect from the frantic border city.
In a bid to scratch another country off of the maps on their bedroom walls, my fellow travellers at the crossing into Ciudad del Este were planning an hour in Paraguay, maybe a day. None had any inclination to stay. The Brazilians were here to shop, regularly capitalising on the cheap goods available just across the border. The region’s tourist population was isolated at the border, drawn to the novelty. Its surroundings remain neglected.
Ciudad del Este is considered one of Paraguay’s top attractions. Its streets are a winding sea of touts laden with a melange of tech and tat, experts tracing their routes around the foundations of towering shopping malls and tattered casas de cambios. As I pulled out on the midnight bus, our path was flanked by so many heavily laden motorbikes traversing the crowded pavements that my mind found itself in on the outskirts of a Vietnamese metropolis.
The air conditioned shopping centres of Ciudad del Este make will never really give you an insight into Paraguay. Yet, many of the county’s annual visitors barely make it beyond the bus stop here. The country’s highlights lie inland.
Alone on the UNESCO heritage list, in a country filled with history worth persevering, are the Jesuit missionary ruins of La Santisima Trinidad de Parana and Jesus de Tavarangue. The Jesuit missionaries settled in Paraguay, as they did all across Latin America, in the 16th century. They sought to save the savages from their pagan ways, enforcing upon the indigenous population the strictures of Spanish Catholicism, responsible for many of the most reprehensible crimes of empire. Yet, the Jesuits in Paraguay came eventually to represent one of the few examples of colonial missionaries defending the principles of their God. They cleansed themselves of the goods and the golds of conquest, so resplendent in altars from Santiago to Seville. Under their tenure here in Paraguay, 150,000 Guaranís returned to their pre-colonial communal lifestyles and traditional arts within the walls of the monasteries standing today, sheltered by sympathetic clergymen under the guise of the civilising missions mandated in Madrid.
I meandered through the rust red bricks of the ruinous monastery, the pathways of the pupils of the educators of the Guaraní. The native people were drawn in through the walls by traditional music studied and performed by missionaries – a gesture of friendship, a sign that indigenous traditions were not criminalised within these walls. I walked carefully over the rough routes of ruddy hued sand, once cultivated to satisfy only the individual needs of the inhabitants. This gesture was one of resistance, a revolt against the exploitative farming structures of the Spanish Empire. Here between these crumbling ruins, money had not existed. Artisans, farmers, weavers, and builders worked together within the walls, trading, maintaining a remote and sustainable lifestyle. Here, under Paraguay’s same still sweltering sun, Christianity had shirked its early legacy of demonical cruelty in indigenous Latin America. It had served, briefly, to save the Guaraní population. A people forcibly pushed back into the forest, a community who had hidden from the impending might of the ‘new world’ for generations.
For this, the Jesuits were expelled in 1767. Angry agents of the Spanish Empire hunted the Guaraní people who had lived here freely, landlords and slavers hacking through the sheltering forests in furious pursuit. I stared up at what remained of the boughs of the brick houses, where they had hung the corpses of the community who had dared to live free here. I walked the road out of the sanctuary, where the young and the fit had been marched to the slave markets in Brazil and the murderous mines in the Bolivian mountains. I lingered where the library once stood, converted into an oven as any memory of generosity was burned in the sect’s wake.
Following a long winded but not uncommonly trodden route from the ruins near Encarnacion, I travelled northwards to reach Paraguay’s enormous Chaco region.
Bleary jungle fog makes early mornings here translucent. Wanderer’s legs sink low through the wetlands obscured by the camouflage of the high reeds, and mud caked to my legs if ever I strayed from the tracks. The Chaco’s sporadic patches of towering, spindling trees did make me nostalgic for the weeks I spent in the Amazon, in the northern towns that stretch along the river between Peru, Colombia, and Brazil. But their presence is bittersweet. Where once a vital ecosystem stood, the second largest rainforest in South America, rampant deforestation has left a patchy and decaying vestige. Fires, foresting and industrial over-farming have devastated the region, destroying the habitats of more than 4,000 species.
This abuse is not new. The Gran Chaco has long been one of the poorest and most exploited regions in South America. Divided between Paraguay, Bolivia, Brazil, and Argentina, the borders and resources have been chipped away in the name of capitalist gains for centuries. I had only heard of the region prior to my arrival in Paraguay because of the Chaco War: The War of Thirst – “The War of the Naked Soldiers”. Wherein, from 1932 to 1935, Shell and Standard Oil fought a war, manned by the two poorest countries in South America: Paraguay and Bolivia. It was a massacre. Where the carcass of a once verdant forest lies today, the bodies of the poor were strewn in the name of American oil. Young men marched to the slaughter in the name of the same pipelines that have ransacked the ancestral homes of their descendants, living today in the wake of the region’s devastation.
Walking through the Chaco, Paraguay’s victory in that war felt distant. It is remote, sparsely populated, more of a challenge for travellers than the well-connected cities of Asunción, Encarnacion, or Ciudad del Este. It is advertised as a destination for the hardy and the adventurous, the travellers who abandoned their memories of comfort somewhere along the brutally rocky road to the Paraguayan hinterland. Yet, it is fairly easy to access the curated tours of the low wetlands and the Mennonite encampments from the gateway town of Filadelfia. I arrived at a functioning bus station, not always something I encountered in Paraguay, and easily found tourism infrastructure along the dusted ochre roads of the small, indistinct town. Yet, the region encompasses roughly half of Paraguay. Some travellers hitch on the cargo ships pottering up and down the Paraguay River, a reportedly excruciating excursion. Others drive the drier and drier road through the 900km of former forest. The thought of empty horizons where a rainforest once stood did not inspire me to travel further.
The Chaco region is nicknamed ‘the Green Inferno’. It’s verdant, sweltering. Ironically, recently, half aflame.
It’s also known sometimes to locals as ‘the Green Hell’.
Today, it’s barely green.
I left Paraguay under the weight of an aging gaucho, slumped in sleep over me and the majority of our small wooden seats. The long bus to Argentina left late at night – it didn’t allow me a last glimpse at Paraguay’s forests or at its roads’ impending potholes. I had left, sooner than planned, after a short spell and several stray bullets in Asunción, discontent. Paraguay still felt completely unknown to me. A country with an enduring legacy of poverty, cruelty, and exploitation, the people and the land of Paraguay contradict the sanitised snapshots taken along the South American gringo trail.
From the window, the unpolluted sea of stars faintly illuminated charred treetops. The land below was, to a naïve traveller like me, shrouded still in dark.