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Paraguayuan leafy lanes

Today we're off to explore the countryside around Asunción. Our guide, Diego, claims to be a friend of Oscar at tourist info but we got a blank look from Oscar when we mentioned this to him later. Our driver Victor sits quietly all day, clearly understanding the conversation in English but choosing not to join in (or not able to if his English is like my Spanish!).

Our first stop is a little village called Itá, famous for its pottery, especially its chickens (gallinitas). Originally only produced in black they now do different colours - white for love, black for money and grey for god health. As the first two aren't much use without the third we plumped for grey and bought the smallest one we could find. This little shopping experience took place when we pulled up outside the local craft centre. It was full of different pottery bits, mostly pretty garish and horrible. Even the gallinita we've bought is fowl (pardon the pun!) but you have to do it.

From here we went to Yaguarón to see their Franciscan Church. It seems to be the only sight in town (as with the shop in Itá). From the outside its a very simple white building with a tiled roof. Inside the roof, pillars and stairs up to the gallery are all decoratively painted. The altar is quite a find. Its elaborately decorated and gilded with statues of the Virgin Mary, God (not Jesus), saint this and that (can't remember which ones!), angels etc. Not only is it tall and wide, its also 3 metres deep. We also managed to sneak into the sacristy. This is another highly ornate room, I think more so than the church but it was difficult to see in the dim light. One the wall by the door was a highly decorated altar and chest of drawers where all the priestly robes etc are stored. They had a big conservation problem here though. Because the room is dark, bats are nesting throughout the altar and the presents they leave behind them are causing damage.

The route them took us down and through Paraguari and Piribebuy. I can't remember what, if anything, we saw in either of these - they weren't memorable places. We stopped at Caacupé. This is a pilgrimage site which was blessed by  Pope John Paul II in 1988. There's a big modern basilica, ugly from the outside and very bland inside, particularly compared to the highly decorated Franciscan church at Yaguarón.

Our next stop was San Bernadino, a lakeside resort for wealthy people from Asunción who have summer houses here. It was pretty isolated being out of season and most houses were closed. By this time though the clouds and mist had rolled in and we couldn't get a view of the lake or the valley beyond.

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The last stop in the tour was at Itaguá, famous for its nandutí lace. I'd expected to see the weaving in action but we were simply rolled into into a shop with the expectation that we'd buy. It was quite intricate but not to our taster. We made the normal polite noises expressing interest but managed to escape without buying.

The "Golden Route" tour to a degree crystallised our views of Paraguay. A big country with not a lot in it. Even the tourist high spots are tiny. I suppose for me its made me put into perspective the wealth of history and tradition that we're used to in Europe and that we take for granted. Here, any history must be based within the indigenous Indian tribes - probably not accessible to us on this trip.

Coming back into Asunción through a different route we both again simultaneously drew parallels with India. The shops appear small and chaotic with a lot crammed into a small space. Life generally seems more frenetic. In the surrounding countryside cows wander freely, causing the odd hazard to traffic.

As you may have guessed we both felt the the Golden Route tour was over-hyped, certainly by European standards. It was useful to have a guide who could explain some of the local culture and background, but this is limited. The key message was that life in a democracy is not as good as it used to be under a dictator!

In town, we said farewell to Oscar who had not been able to get us any more information on the Chaco or boats. He gave us a CD of local music as a parting gift - we've not listened to it yet but don't have high hopes. We then had a failed attempt to book our flights out of Paraguay at the Lan Chile office and were told to come back tomorrow. I'm not sure if they had ever had anyone in there before with a One World explorer ticket.

Before heading back to the hotel we stopped at the Casa de la Independencia, the place where the independence treaty for Paraguay was signed. Unusually, independence came in peaceful times. The wars and battles over territory came later. Its a beautiful Spanish style house ("I want one" was my reaction), partly restored with the furnishings and fittings of the day. A very helpful chap chatted to us for ages firstly about the house but then about all sorts of stuff. I wasn't really sure what he was saying but Stef kept nodding as it he was following the conversation. He then asked for a small donation for the upkeep of the museum, but was also commenting about bus times and we both reckon he used the money to cover his bus fare home (as I'm here so late I need to get two buses now instead of the usual one bus).