Events have conspired to compel me to spend some time in Asunción this week. This will a good opportunity to really explore the city in a way that I have not been able to do so far, and then I can write about it! Generally when we come in it is for some PC event or another, and there are many volunteers in the city for a short time and we devote a fair amount of our free time to going out, drinking and otherwise burning cash before quickly returning to our more humble lives in site.
I will be reimbursed by the Peace Corps for the price of my hotel room plus 45k Gs. (10$) for food and walk around money, but I can´t afford to be drinking and galavanting around the city like I normally would. I did once know how to live very cheaply, but my discipline has severely eroded away over the years. Still, I love walking and I don´t mind eating bananas. You can see a lot of interesting things in Latin America cheaply if you are willing to walk around and eat bananas. Because bananas are cheap.
Asunción is the only proper city in the country. It is the oldest Spanish city on this side of the Andes and contains the bureaucracy and society that allows Paraguay to operate as an independent country. In Paraguay there is Asunción and then there is everything else (the interior).
But as far as cities go, as far as Latin American capitals go, it is not much. Not very impressive. Disappointing, if you are hoping for a metropolis or a mysterious and beautiful imperial relic. There are no mighty Spanish fortifications or ruins, the cathedral is uninspiring, the river port is sleepy, the road network is baffling, dangerous, dirty and loud, there are no dizzying winding stairways or mountainside barrios, the nightlife is unimpressive, even the modern buildings are ugly.
For all that, I love it for what it is.
Disappointment is of course a matter of incorrect expectations. The result of an error on the part of the beholder. It is a dirty little city, that is all you can expect.
Is it little? It is difficult to classify cities by size. Asunción is quite large. There are 2.3 million people in the metropolitan area, which is about the same as Portland. There were only 2.3 million in the whole country in 1950 (now there are 7) and town with more than 20,000 people in Paraguay is considered a ciudad. My parents refer to Nueva Germania as a village, while my neighbors refer to it as a ciudad. Anyone who has spent much time a true city however, knows what it looks like. It is that urban core that really defines all the sprawling area around it. New York has a seemingly endless urban core, Seattle has a decent sized one, Portland´s is rather small. It is there that the best, the smartest, most creative and most expensive of everyone and everything in the city´s region is focused and it is there that the city´s character is decided.
It is a dirty little city, but it does have its own character. An urban character, which is built out of so many lives so deeply enmeshed in the city´s little universe over multiple generations. This is what I cannot help but come to love, this little outpost of cosmopolitanism deep deep up inside South Ameica, so far away from the modern world of information and international commerce and steel and glass and iphones.