Paraguay is not known to many people in Europe, let alone what is there. At the moment, Paraguay is only found in the German media as the country to which corona deniers, Reich citizens or other crazy people withdraw from Germany in the stupid hope of not being tamed by the state there. I find more videos on YouTube about howling people who explain how to emigrate back to Germany than people who are still trying to lure other stupid people into their colonies. I can’t find anything about the nature and beauty of the country under the name of the country. So it’s terra incognita for me and I have no idea what we’ll find in Paraguay.
The journey presents us with several challenges. Already in 2020 I was planning a trip around the world, sold all my things, gave up my apartment and my job and was ready to go. What could possibly go wrong? A pandemic, who can count on it. Despite the circumstances, I found a new job, a new apartment and a small family. In 2022, the pandemic seems to be tangible and predictable. Sara and I apply for a long sabbatical, remotely looking for a car, flights, routes. What’s going to happen? A stupid autocratic despot ruling Russia, seeking world domination, is attacking Ukraine. The world is tense, the NATO countries are forming a united front and a whiff of Armageddon is – once again – in the air.
Apart from thousands upon thousands of deaths and refugees, the world economy is also going down significantly. My savings are suddenly only worth a part. The euro falls catastrophically in value and especially in relation to the US dollar, in which I have to pay for the car in Paraguay. We find refugees who we can leave our apartment to, but unfortunately they jump out at the last moment because they found something easier for them. We live in a village in the Black Forest and the way to Freiburg for work, offices and school is difficult.
We’re still going through with our plan. Our car is in the workshop for weeks and we don’t know if it has to stay there for the entire duration of the trip. Because of Covid-19, airports have let go of much of their staff and now, in 2022, they are finding they have not hired anything new. The holiday season is coming and queues hundreds of meters long adorn the check-in counters and security controls. For the trip, we get a special and expensive travel child seat, which turns out to be defective shortly before the flight. Our host in Asunción canceled us at short notice because his children apparently have corona symptoms. It cannot be said that our journey simply begins. But we’ll pull through!
The Journey from Germany to Asunción
At least next to our car. Sara and Leon are on a journey through South America. After a long research we found the right car in Paraguay’s capital Asunción. I found contact with Esteban on Facebook. He has a luscious 1996 Toyota Hiace for sale, equipped with four-wheel drive, lots of space and camper amenities with a fold-out bed, a small kitchen and even a small bathroom with shower. I plan the complete self-sufficient off-road equipment in the months beforehand with Esteban via numerous video calls and messages.
Our journey leads from Frankfurt first to Sao Paolo for a stopover. We seem to be the only Germans on the plane, everyone speaks to us in Portuguese as a matter of course and is surprised that we don’t speak the language. After a 12-hour flight with the baby, we take a break at an airport hotel before continuing to Asuncion.
Although the flight is only two hours long, we have filled the plane with enthusiastic football fans cheering on their club Palmeiras (part of Sao Paolo). Apparently, a big game between the two cities will take place in the coming days. Luckily Leon isn’t intimidated by the singing fans but wide-eyed and wonders what’s going on. As before on the trip to Madeira and Iran, he soon attracted everyone’s attention and sympathy on the plane. A couple of the Brazilian fans offer to swap places with them up front where it’s much quieter. We accept with thanks.
During our time in South America, I realize that half of people’s lives revolve around football. Be it in the media or daily conversations, people are crazy about football. We are excited for the 2022 World Cup, which is upon us at the end of the year.
Unfortunately, Esteban can’t pick you up from the airport because he’s stuck in traffic. With an Uber we get to an accommodation in the north of the city. We set ourselves up at home and sleep for a long time.
In the next few days we will find out a lot about the people of Paraguay. The people of the country cannot tell you much about sights in Paraguay themselves. But the food should be good.
We reach Paraguay in the middle of winter. It’s June 28th, the winter solstice on June 21st has just passed and the days are as short as the year can get. The sun sets shortly after 5 p.m. and it is still really warm.
While the first few days after our arrival the temperatures stayed around 20 degrees, the thermometer later rose to up to 30 degrees Celsius. in the middle of winter. Lots of Paraguayans tell us, but it’s hard to believe what a hell this city must be only in the summer.
Living in the Hipster Quarter
Many small streets are not only made of cobblestones – no – it looks as if a river ran here and left its boulders behind. But not far from us we find the Café Karu, which deeply impresses us with the quality of the coffee, tea and baked goods.
We are a little north of the city and Esteban tells us that this is a rich area and the prices are prohibitive.
With my untrained eye, however, I only see a few glass palaces, while the rest looks normal to in need of renovation.
Modern or old, power outages hit local blocks of flats time and time again. It happens especially at night that the lights flicker and eventually go out altogether. Sometimes only in individual houses.
We notice that the country is not that cheap, albeit cheaper than in Germany. A purchase costs and twelve euros and a very good breakfast five. You also pay one euro per gigabyte of internet. A liter of petrol is just 1.20 euros here, while in Germany it is currently 2 euros.
In South America, too, prices are currently extremely above the norm and pose an existential problem to people who are dependent on commuting.
We roam downtown. This is like a tiny Manhattan on a peninsula that is formed by the river. Square blocks include small houses and skyscrapers, shacks and glass palaces. There are few sights. Downtown there is Parque Uruguay, which has many statues, and the larger Parque Catedral, which houses the large monument, the Pantheon del Heroes.
We can easily get from A to B with Uber anywhere in the city. The Bolt app is also available and used by the same drivers and the same customers.
After some recommendations we visit the Bolsi restaurant. It’s also really packed and people line up to get a seat. From our perspective the restaurant is good, but we don’t understand the hype.
For this we notice two things. First, there is a lot of street art in the city. Large graffiti adorn the house walls both in the city center and in the outdoor areas.
Secondly, in the city center we see many Indians selling art objects. All of them seem very sad.
But the people are friendly. We’ll start talking quickly. Even in the middle of the city, a jogger wishes me a good day. But there are also almost no tourists in the city. Probably not in the country either. If we want to know something and try our luck in English, whether in a shop or on the street, someone will quickly come along and offer to help translate it into Spanish.
Directly opposite the Presidential Palace and the Palace of Justice there is a beautiful, idyllic square with a view over the city. And shacks. I am extremely surprised when I notice the spontaneously hammered together huts. Between the trees and paths, people have built shelters and even small shops. My first thought was that this is a market. My first exploration, however, leads straight into people’s privacy.
Why this is so remains a mystery to me. Was there a crisis where people lost their homes? Is it temporary?
The city is paying attention, there are many police and toilet blocks have been made available to the residents.
I later speak to Marcos and Soledad, a couple who live here that I met on Couchsurfing. Marcos explains to me that the residents of the Plaza Independencia are Indians who are protesting against the destruction of their homeland. They are tolerated here, but the protests have been going on for years and unfortunately have had little success.
The River Paraguay
The city has a very unusual location. It is right on the river that gave the country its name. It meanders along the outskirts of the city, separating it from Argentina. So you can look straight into the neighboring country from the capital. Researching the history of the country shows me that there was a war in which Argentina and Brazil divided a large part of Paraguay between themselves and the country lost two-thirds of its area. But we don’t notice that a resident of Paraguay would have a bad time with one of the other countries.
Right on the edge of the city center there is a small park, a beach and a natural wetland where many birds cavort: the Costanera. This bay has no exit and apart from a few rowers there are no ships. Instead, there are red snipes, white herons and remarkably large birds of prey that flock in search of edible leftovers.
Food in Paraguay
We receive an invitation from Esteban to meet him and his family at his home and have a real Paraguayan event together. That means lots of drinking, eating and a lavish BBQ. Leon is cuddled head to back by women and men, young and old, and the young child enjoys being passed around and grabbing strangers’ noses. Even Esteban’s nine-year-old daughter is beaming as she carries Leon around. The employed women, the household help and the old grandmother’s caregiver and the cook are really keen on the little one.
The first thing to eat is bori bori, a chicken soup with corn. Then there is chipa, a corn and cheese bread found in many different variations across the country. All I need is Esteban caña loca, a mix of local rum (which they call caña here, just “sugar cane”), pomelo juice and honey. Finally, Esteban serves up spare ribs and a thick shoulder of beef. Beef hardly costs anything in Paraguay. There are more cows than people in this country, says Esteban.
I also see people walking the streets with mate tea, sometimes even with the gadgets, like extra yerba or a giant thermos for the right temperature of cold water. They drink their yerba here with ice and call it tereré. It tastes extremely refreshing and I like it immediately.
I like having mjebú as a side dish. These little flatbreads are incredibly dry and contain a layer of cheese that is no less dry. Alongside this we also get another curiosity: sopa paraguayana. However, this soup is a corn, egg and cheese cake. Esteban tells me the legend of it in such a way that someone was supposed to make a soup, but it overcooked and eventually hardened. But the taste of this accident was so good that the recipe and the name were retained.
The purchase of the car
Esteban and I met on Facebook back in February when I was looking for a set of wheels for our maternity leave in South America. Unfortunately a few things go wrong.
Esteban picks me up with the new old car the day after we arrive in Asunción so we can take a test drive. Actually, the car should have been ready long ago, but the work on the interior and on the solar panels took weeks longer than planned.
I test the car so thoroughly that we break down in the end. It later turns out that the diesel engine’s fuel pump appears to be defective. Finding the problem and fixing it will take four days.
Esteban then states that the following weekend will be the ‘TransChaco’ – a huge event, the country’s biggest rally along the wild Chaco River – and as a result, unfortunately, all the workshops will be fully booked. That’ll cost us another week.
Ultimately, the work on the car takes so long that Esteban himself gets into trouble when his wife has to go to the hospital to give birth to their child.
We have to hold out in Asuncion for three weeks before we can finally get on the road.
Esteban helps me with the bureaucracy. He finds a notary who legally records the transfer of the car for us. He draws up a document that identifies me as the new owner of the car. Then we have to fill in the registration of the car in the city. I get a white card for that. Then I have to enter the registration of the car in my name. I get a green card for that. And then the car has to be insured for Paraguay and the rest of South America – I get another green card for that.
Convenient – you don’t have to queue up in front of an office yourself. You can hire someone to do it for you for money. We just have to wait.