Welcome to Siesta Country. If it was difficult to find Paraguay’s soul in its capital, Asuncion, in Concepcion, it was laid bare. Paraguay, at heart, is a rural country where people have battled dense jungle, wide rivers and unforgiving deserts to eek out an agricultural existence.
Located in the little-visited north of the country, on the banks of the drowsy Rio Paraguay, Concepcion has the feeling of a frontier town with the speed turned down to s-l-o-w. It has a healthy sprinkling of colonial architecture, pretty plazas, and wide streets, designed by Italian colonists who were anticipating mineral riches which never eventuated. Over time, the city has gradually been painted red by the dusty earth which was never truly tamed. The main road is paved, but go one street over and the roads are still made of red earth which become muddy rivers with every passing storm. You’re just as likely to see a horse and cart plodding along the main drag as you are a motorbike. The whole place has a feel of only being half completed, of having one foot in the Wild West of yore and the other in the modern world. And this seems to sum up what Paraguay is about.
I went and spent a few days at Granja El Roble, a farm about twenty kilometres out of Concepcion, and even closer to Paraguay’s rural soul. The land had originally been jungle, hacked down to become farmland which was then left to become overgrown and unproductive. Along came Peter Gardner, a German immigrant, who over the course of fifteen years has coaxed the land back into productivity, and now has a plot of half restored jungle plus several aquaculture dams, milking cows and veggie patches. He also has sleepy anaconda, a friendly tapir, a bellowing howler monkey, a gorgeous but ridiculously proportioned toucan, a cheeky macaw and a chorus of hundreds of frogs and toads as pets.
Through conversations with Peter, John Holland (another guest at El Roble who grew up in Paraguay in a German utopian socialist religious colony called the Bruderhof) and a good dose of historical literature, I came a bit closer to understanding the turbulent drama that is Paraguay’s modern history. It is an intriguing story that involves a cast of fat, paranoid dictators with Napoleonic tendencies, Irish courtesans with trumped up French fantasies, fierce cannibal Indians, strange religious sects fleeing persecution, mostly failed experimental utopian colonies, fugitive Nazi war criminals, contraband smugglers and naive immigrant settlers from Ukraine, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Japan, Korea and Australia who thought they were headed to a Central South American Arcadia. Through a series of disastrous political wars and battles with unforgiving landscapes, most of them went mad. It’s the kind of history that would make a good musical if it wasn’t so tragic.
But again, this sort of sums up Paraguay for me. A true South American backwater, it is a land that few in the outside world know much about, but which makes it attractive to fugitives, escapists and adventurers. The kind of place one can disappear into, swallowed up whole by a hammock.