An obstacle to my becoming excited about being in this place was how little I knew about it. I´d never learned much about Paraguay. Even while my own cousin was serving here and diligently writing a blog five years ago I failed to read what he wrote. Paraguay is an isolated country. For me to love being here I`ve had to locate it in the world.
I´ve been trying to better apreciate its geographic posistion, because I think this is very important in understanding this place. It is landlocked, and far from the andes, so one has no immediate geographic landmark to anchor our understanding of where it is in the world. The andes run like a spine streight north from Patagonia forming the entire border between Chile and Argentina. They then run into Bolivia and form a large plateau, but there the course changes dramatically; they shoot off to the West and begin the enormous crescent that runs through Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, to Venezuela. Paraguay lies to the South of Bolivia, so the Andes still form thier great wall far off to the the West of here, on the other side of Argentina. Paraguay is mostly flat with some hills near the Eastern and North-Eastern border that it shares with Brazil. This border runs along the Parana river which is heavily dammed, providing most of the power for this country, but also has one of the world´s most awesome waterfalls (Yguazu - y: water, guazu: big). In general the Eastern half of the country is green and wet. It´s in between jungle and grassland. Meanwhile the ¨chaco¨ covering the Western half is dry, and is excellent for ranching. The Paraguay river runs through the middle of the country, and like of spine of an offset-book, forms the western border for the South-Eastern part of the country, and the Eastern border for the North-Western part of the country. It is navigable and runs to the "river" Plate, which is just a glorified bay, and divides Argentina from Brazil and Urugay.
Paraguay has stood outside of the main courses of history. This is largely because of it´s geographic position. It`s capitol city, Asuciòn was the first Spanish Settlement on this side of the Andes, but it soon lost importance to Buenos Aires. To the extent it was colonized by the Spanish was because the Paraguay river was the best land route to take between Buenos Aires and Lima. Perversely, in the old Spanish Empire all trade had to leave America through either Lima or Mexico, so inter-american trade routes were more important than they otherwise would have been. Only once did Paraguay step into the spotlight of (South American) history, and it got severely burned. After the South American colonies became independent from Spain, they spent a good bit of the 1800s consolidating and unifying their territory. Argentina and Brazil (which was itself now a co-equal part of the Portuguese Empire) were huge and decentralized. Paraguay, possibly because of it´s small size and thanks to a competent but totalitarian ruler (Dr. de Francia) was able to consolidate far sooner than its larger neighbors. Paraguay became a true power in South America for the only time in its history. Two dictators later Paraguay still loomed large, but neighboring giants had succeeded in consolidating their power somewhat, and in a bungled attempt to play one against the other, Paraguay ended up at war with both, and with the Brazilian puppet Urugay to boot. The war dragged on and the dictator Lopez put every warm body he could between the enemies guns and himself. By the end 90% of Paraguayan men had been killed, and Paraguay would return to its place as a backwater and footnote to history in the Southern Cone.
History interests me because I have a boyish delight in old battles, amries, ships, and castles. It also interests me in a more mature way because it affects, subtly, so much of the mundane reality of daily life. When I am in Latin America I am struck both by how different our cultures are, but also by how many common foundations we share. My culture is founded in a Western European medley dominated by the English, and Latin American culture is simarly founded in Western Europe, but in Imperial Spain. There is much in both cultures that comes from the Romans. So while I get some delight in thinking of the Roman legions eastablishing themselves in France, crossing the Channel, battling the Celtic kings and building Hadrian´s wall accross the island, the more fascinating thing is how those actions lead to how I live my life, and how it is not so much different, in its foundations, from my host family here.