Out and about in Asuncion, Stef was very tuned in to the number of police/military types there are around and the quantity and size of their guns. Its 27C at 10:30 in the morning and feels set to be a hot sticky day.
We ambled down Palma, which seems to be a main road. Outside tourist info there's a small stage with girls dancing. They are all dressed in white and perform a slow and graceful dance which, when they add carafes and wine bottles to their heads is a display of poise and deportment.
Tomorrow is a public holiday celebrating the end of the Chaco war. Its not clear if the dancing, later replaced by a guitarist and harpist, is a weekly occurrence or just due to the holiday. There's a buzz about the place. Makeshift stalls line the road selling lacework, clothes, food. Men are walking around trying to sell fake watches - so far they still go away with an initial firm "no gracias". We're not the only tourists here (there's one other couple!) but we stand our by miles. From the others I've seen here and in Uruguay its not just our appearance but there's also an element of wary apprehension which seems to mix feelings of "I'm not comfortable here" with "of course I am, I just wish I knew which way to go without having to look at a map".
We talked what the economy here is probably like and concluded that there's a small proportion of the population who are very wealthy but that most are pretty poor.
At Plaza Uruguay we sat in the shade to get our bearings and to decide which bus to get tomorrow down to Encarnacion, to see the Jesuit Mission ruins. Stef spied a lady selling the local drink terere - its like mate tea but made with cold water. Its only after he's bought it and drunk some tat he pondered about how clean the water was and the bombilla (straw) that you drink it through - time will tell! I couldn't work out if he really liked it but he later confirmed that he did.
A couple of German men stopped to have a chat - one was very short with an incredibly round belly (must hold loads of the local German style beer, Baviera), the other is a young chap in his mid 20's. Despite the heat they both have shirts and ties on and are carrying document wallets - everything about them shouts that they are religious missionaries. Sure enough, after making genial conversation for a while, they started to bring out leaflets and pamphlets which they left with Stef. They were Jehovah's Witnesses.
As the top end of the square a building that looks like an exhibition hall turns out to be a bookshop. It was mainly educational books but they did have Harry Potter. Next stop was the bus ticket office where they recommended we got a later bus than we'd planned to because it didn't stop so often along the way. It costs about £5 each for a 5 hour trip, just short of 300km.
This will be our first trip on a real bus. I'm a bit apprehensive about what's in store, how comfy it will be and whether it has a (usable) loo on board! I think we'll possibly pinch the spare loo roll from our hotel as its the first soft one we've come across since we left home. We checked to see how secure our bags will be. Stef's wary because he's read in one travel book that people hide in the luggage compartment and spend these long trips opening up bags at their leisure. We're reassured that the bags are effectively checked in and we're given tags that we need to show at the other end to get our bags back.
Near the bus office is the old railway station, now closed for trains (as only a tourist train runs in Paraguay now) but used as a car park. There's a couple of old carriages and the first steam engine that was used here. It's sad to see but at least the building is being maintained and used - the ticket hall is now used by a flamenco dancing association. The old carriages are from a bygone age with dark, heavy wood paneling and red leather seats. Its also a first sign that the area we're in becomes the red light district at night. Even though its only 1pm, the ladies are already out plying their trade.
Heading back towards downtown we took a different road and stumbled across the Munich restaurant. As its name suggests, it has German roots and the lady serving is definitely of German origin. They had a courtyard behind the restaurant which provided a cool shady spot out of the heat of the day. It was a real mix of a place with heavy, dark wooden tables and chairs set in a mediterranean style courtyard with sub tropical plants and a fountain trickling in the background. We decamped for a couple of hours until the breeze started to pick up and it cooled down.
Cámara de Senadores
Whilst there we started to replan our trip beyond Paraguay. We had intended to go to Bolivia but the political situation there at the moment is a bit tricky and the Foreign Office are advising against non-essential travel. Although disappointing, it gives us options - try for the Galapagos Islands, more time in Peru/Ecuador/Canada or fit in another country.
In the afternoon we saw the main sights of Asuncion. The Catedral was shut but we were able to go into the Cámara de Senadores - the main senate house and former home of Carlos Lopez, one of Paraguay's famous leaders.. Its a large pink building and I wondered if the colour was a conscious choice to be similar to its counterpart in Buenos Aires. Inside there are a few rooms with displays of indigenous costumes and information charting the development of the city. The
Further round the Plaza de Armas is the Cámara de Diputados (the congress building) which was originally built by the Jesuits. Its has a main inner courtyard, with a sunken middle. The steps down to the middle run the full length of the courtyard creating the feeling of an amphitheatre. Set within one corner is a further inner courtyard. This has a small but beautiful garden surrounding a statue of (I think) Jesus. It's a very calm inner sanctum. The walkways around the courtyards are covered providing shade from the sun. Each door and window is the office of a different government department.
The main Palacio de Gobierno is a huge white building with immaculately tended gardens. Unlike the last two buildings, there's no visiting this one. Soldiers stand guard but are OK with photos being taken. We're becoming acclimatised to the sight of so many soldiers and guns and have found them all to be friendly when we've said hello and asked for info.
Opposite the palace is a small sector of houses that have been restored. These are part museum and part art gallery. The museum has one room refurbished in original style showing the furniture of the day. It also has town plans and postcards showing how the city has evolved and developed. Much of the colonial architecture has been destroyed in various programmes of modernising the city. The ones that are left as highly decorated and it would have been fantastic to see the city in its pre-modernised state.
The art gallery is extensive with rooms leading off one another. In the central courtyard there's a small group having what sounds like a very intellectual discussion/debate about something. Its frustrating that my poor Spanish doesn't allow me to eavesdrop and find out what they're chatting about.
We headed back to our hotel via a German bakery - it was closed but just the signs on the shelves had Stef oohing and aahing with remembered pleasures of those breads from when he worked in Germany. At the hotel we went for a swim in the rooftop pool. There was a warm breeze, nice after the heat of the day, but the water was so cold that neither of us made it deeper than our knees.
Next to the pool there was a small games room with a pool table. With memories of a terrible (and very long) game in Darjeeling in India, we again attempted to play. Stef's not great, I'm dismal. He won by 3 games to 2 and I have to confess that I only got those because Stef fouled on the black!! I obviously need more practice.