Wednesday, August 29, 2012

If you lived here, you'd already be home


After a year and a half in Paraguay the themes I want to write about begin to repeat themselves: Asunción, buses, the beauty of the land, the ugliness of the buildings, the kindness of the people and then general lonliness.

I am in Asunción again tonight, after a week of travelling in the department of San Pedro, which I perivously called home. It was just lovely to see my voluneer friends and to be in the north again, though I did not have permission to visit my former site. Once you go north from Santani you enter something like the Wild West. Santa Rosa is a boom town, expanding far faster than any services or municipal organization can keep up. The little towns of the countryside are tranquility itself, where the rumbling affairs of the capital or the outside world barely register. Then San Pedro de Ycuamandiyyu (uh-kwa-man-di-ju) which is the great corrupted outpost of civilization grown out of a region so long isloated and neglected.

Obi-Wan Kenobi's words about Mos Eisley echo in my ears when I walk down those old San Pedro streets "you will not find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy"

I do love it though.

It was so lovely to visit my friends Hannah and Leah, who live in and 21km from the town of San Pedro respectively. They are both technically Environmental Education volunteers but actually are involved in all sorts of projects beyond just environmental education. Leah's main focus is gardening (which is environmental, sure, but is really more of a priority for health and economic reasons) and has lately overseen a large project to build, stock and manage chicken coops  with families in her community. The vast majority of chickens in PY (of which there are a lot) just wander around wherever they like, which is nice and all, but they get sick or killed or stolen and you can't control what they are eating. Like the gardens, this is really a nutrition and economic project. She's also working the the tiny elementary and high school in her site teaching English, Computer skills, gardening, art, and probably all sorts of other great stuff.
My dad, Marissa, and Hannah in San Pedro. I don't have any picutres of  Leah :(
Hannah is one of the most guapa (the opposite of lazy) people I have ever known. Whenever I talk to her I always hear about cualquer other project shes been working on that I didn't even know about. She's been working with the municipality to flouridate the water and to build a new dump which won't leak into the ground water. She also teaches English classes at the elemenary school, high school, university, and for adults. Her greatest project, and perhaps her great white whale, has been a community center. She's been growing this around her home which is a big ancient family house on maybe an acre of land. She provides toys, love, encouragement and a rare positive role model to the street kids that frequently come to visit her. With the Agriculture students at the university and her neighbors she built a huge community garden on the property and has plans for sewing and cooking classes. This is the sort of sprawling project that I stay well away from, and which I think would sink a lesser volunteer. If there is anyone in Peace Corps Paraguay who could pull it all off it would be Hannah. Check out her website if you'd like to learn more.

I stayed with both Hannah and Leah and we spent a lot of time together the three of us. It felt so good to be out there. I'm so Paraguayan now in plenty of ways that I don't even think about and San Pedro feels as close to home as anywhere I've been in a year and a half. The best of all was simply to have fun! To laugh whole heartedly, with other people! With friends! What glory! I really felt the weight of the last months lifting from my shoulders; I was reminded that I am not a gloomy, solitary person by nature. I hope never again to go so long without spending time with good friends. It poisons one to do so.

And then endless hours in the bus, the buses, from the most janky wood-floored and barely operable campo buses to double-decked glistening space shuttles with AC and flat screen TVs. The buses are of course serviced by all manner of vendors, providing nearly endless opportunities for impulse buys. I kept a running tally of the vendors that boarded during the course of my first long bus ride from Natalio to Coronel Oviedo last Saturday:
Chipa (it's a thing): 5
milanesa (country fried steak): 5
Soda: 3
candy/gum: 1
roasted meat: 1
lottery: 1
pills (all sorts): 1
pirated movies and music: 2
fruit salad: 1
and a proper salesman who pitched a teeth-whitening cream to us, though his voice didn't carry well and I doubt much of the bus could hear him. I had bought a bunch of bananas before leaving, and was able to show some rare self control and refrain from buying food.

It was a pleasure to return to this crazy city again after a week in San Pedro and almost 3 months without visiting. I stand by what I wrote before about the defiant but charming urbanism which thrives beneath all the chaos, clouds of exhaust, slums, and upper class distractions. I love the connection to the land I see both in Natalio and San Pedro, but to see regular people living the city life, working, studying, shopping, eating, drinking, cultivating themselves and having fun, uplifts me. Something approaching interesting cuisine, quality in art and music, organizations beyond the family level. Cities are linguistically and as far as I'm concerned actually the root of the meaning of civilization. I would not say that the good people of San Pedro are not civilized, but just that civilzation in that area is sustained by the distant connection to Asunción.

And here I am again. I am the only guest at the Arandu hostel, which makes it the most luxurious lodging per dollar spent I have ever enjoyed. I have the run of the entire building, which is a former mansion in an old part of town that has been lovingly restored and converted into its current encarnation. It is also a block from the beautiful Chuch of the Encarnation.
And the weather is turning. I was sure that winter had one more week of cold weather left, though as August passed I began to question myself. Today a cold, powerful wind is coming in from the South. It is shrieking outside my window as I write. Rain is predicted the next few days and the lows may be in the 40s Sunday through Tuesday. I'll get a chance to use up the rest of my firewood, and wear my funny ear flap old man hat one more time.

It's been a good trip. I'm even getting to miss Natalio a little bit.

Friday, August 17, 2012


The weather has been glorious here. Windy and warm, highs in the 80s, lows in the 60s. It is like the best of summer in the NW and I have been bombarded with mini flashbacks to sailing, bike riding, baseball, picnics, lawn mowing, house painting... I actually was painting my ugly ugly house last weekend.
With the warmer weather people seem to be opening up a bit, myself included and I'd like to think that I'm finally making some real connections here in Natalio. One of the ways I've occupied myself this lonesome winter has been with various projects around the house.

Relative poverty means that in Paraguay people are often not able to replace something as soon as it breaks. Products are also often cheaply made, and so they break more easily than what I am used to. Folks push things just up to the breaking point, and then use their wits to hopefully keep disaster at bay. If folks are unable to buy what they need they often show an impressive but also depressing ability to simply ignore inconvenience or discomfort. More hearteningly, many people are also adept at jury-rigging all manner of things, or building machines and gadgets and gizmos from whatever they have available. I generally take pleasure in seeing the ingenuity with which people are able to solve their problems without the superfluous consumption we are accustomed to in (the US of) America. That the jury-rigs are often cringe-inducingly unsafe does make the American way more attractive, from a statistical stand-point at least.

I have learned a lot just by observing these various inventions and improvisations in daily life (I'd like to have more pictures but really, there are so many things it stops being remarkable), but most of all I have learned to ask myself anytime something breaks or I want something new if I couldn't just fix it or make it myself. I love this hands-on quality to daily life which is mostly missing in America after we leave elementary school.

Here are a few of the projects I've been working on around the house:

Rope + 2 pulleys + watering can = shower:
 For when I don't have enough water pressure to take a proper shower. As a result of reading large ammounts of historical naval fiction in my youth, I've always wanted to use pulleys for some practical purpose and I think this is the first time that I've built something with them in which they are really essential. I wouldn't be able to hoist the water up easily without the 2x1 pulley action.

table + drain pipe + wash basin with a hole in it = sink:
The outdoor sink I'd been using for the first few months was taken away by its owner a 3 weeks ago. It had been loaned to Lizzie when she lived in this house, but for me it just felt like part of the house. So I rode by bike to the lumberyard (which I really do need to get some pictures of, it is straight out of the 1800's) put some long 2x5s on my rack, rode back to my house and built my own sink using an old palangana (a plastic wash basin) which I cut a hole in for the sink itself. I still haven't figured out a good way to seal it, I may have to buy another palangana to cut a more perfectly circular hole in.

woodstove v2.0:
don't need to go into this again. I'm about 60% happy with this design, but I was a little disappointed by this winter. We only have one properly cold week and of that there was only frost on the ground three times.

library maps:
I already completed and posted about my South America map I made for the library. I've also been working on a "corzaon de sudamerica" map which just shows the area around Paraguay from La Paz to Santiago to Buenos Aires and southern Brazil. The initial energy I had for the first map has lessened, and I've made more than a couple labelling mistakes. The other night I labeled the Pacific Ocean as the Atlantic! blah

Shelves: though it seems simple, I am rather proud of the way I figured out to attach shelves to a regular brick and stucco interior wall. This is a good example of something that neverwould have occurred to me if I hadn't gotten going thinking about creative solutions to furniture problems. I put in four long nails, making the corners of a wide rectangle. The top two nails are angled upwards as much as possible. The bottom two nails stick out straight. I string metal wire very loosely from each bottom nail to the nail above it. Then I insert the shelf into the two loops formed by the wire. The inside of the shelf is suspended by the lower nails and the outside of the shelf it suspended by the wire hanging from the top nail. I just need to get more boards...

vintage paraguayan science textbooks >> home decorations:
some of the initial donations for the library which were stored in my house were too damaged or outdated to keep as part of the library collection. Two of these were classic old elementary school science books. The illustrations are all hand drawn and are block printed, black and white and then just one color depending on the page. This style of printing has an attractive simplicity too it and the drawings are endearing. This style of printing has made something of a comeback in the indie/portlandia/vegan-lesbian circles I was familiar with back home. I've made several posters out of some of the most interesting pages.

wine botle lanterns: a cool way to reuse glass bottles (mostly from wine or liquor because beer bottles have a deposit) that we learned during training is to cut them and make drinking glasses out of them. This is a pretty cool skill, though it is difficult and it is tiring doing more than a couple of bottles. What you do is wrap a length of fine metal wire around to handles (sticks), wrap the wire around the bottle, then run it quickly back and forth around the bottle. You put masking tape around the bottle above and below where you want the wire to run. The movement of the wire heats of the glass in this small area. Running the wire quickly and forcefully enough takes a lot of strength both for the person holding the bottle (leather gloves are nice for this) and for the person with the wire. Once the glass is judged to be hot enough (lots of times you can see a little smoke rise off where the heated area) you dunk the whole bottle quickly in a bucket of ice water. If you did it right the top of the bottle will easily separate from the bottom. You then need to sand the edges where the glass broke, and then you have a homemade water glass!

The top half of the bottle is an interesting shape and I am always trying to think of good uses for it, though few are practical. It could be a funnel, or if you just get the neck you could have a guitar slide. I've been making hanging lanterns out of them. I put the cork back in the top, invert the bottle, and insert a candle into the neck. Then I rig it up with a cord to hang from the beams of my back porch awning. The bottle protects the flame from the wind and gives the light a cool green color. As long as the candle is the same girth as the neck of the bottle it won't break the glass because the flame won't touch any part of it. The glass only breaks if one part is significantly hotter than any other part.

And I've got a bitchin' two tier compost. We'll see if I get much to grow in my shady garden though...

Sunday, August 12, 2012

La historia II

Our historical romp continues...

After writing the last historical post I found a page that explains almost everything I wanted to, but better written and researched. 

Well, as we noted in the last post, Asunción was founded in 1537. By 1550 the outlines of the Spanish colonial empire had already been laid out: Mexico and the Carribean, the Andes and the Pacific coast of South America, and the Rio de la Plata. By 1600 it was consolidated and organized politcally into two vice-royalties, Mexico and Peru.

The rivers of La Plata were initially explored in the interest of finding a convieninet route to the riches of Peru. The Pilcomayo, the Belmejo and the Rio Negro all flow from the Andes, but first cross the Gran Chaco, which is as inhospitable an envrionment as any in South America and which was populated by aggressive indigenous tribes. The Chaco remained essentially unconquered until the 20th century. Asunción became the center of Spanish settlement east of the Andes and south of the Amazon, but without easily extractable natural rescources the region attracted little attention.

The estuary that would become known as El Rio de la Plata (the river of silver) was first discovered for Europeans by a Spanish explorer Juan Díaz de Solís in 1516, before the Spanish had yet crossed the isthmus of Panama or passed through the straits of Magellan to reach the Pacific. Juan Díaz was killed by natives, and most of his crew sailed home, but one of his lieutenants, a Portugese named Aleixo Garcia was left behind near Santa Catarina on the southern Brazilian coast. Aleixo Garcia spent eight years living with the coastal Gauraní and from them learned of the Inca Empire and its riches to the west. He managed to raise a Guaraní army then crossed through modern southern Brazil, Paraguay, the Chaco, and successfully raided the Inca in modern Bolivia. Needless to say he was one gnarly dude. He looted copious amounts of silver and retreated with the spoils across the Chaco but was attacked repeatedly and finally killed on returning to the Paraguay river. He was the first European to have an encounter with the Inca empire.

Sebastiano Caboto was the son of the Venetian explorer in the service of the English, Giovanni Caboto (aka John Cabot). Sebastiano explored the estuary in 1526 for the Spanish, established two forts, and ventured up the rivers as far as the future site of Asunción. He encountered the survivors of Garcia´s army and thier silver treasures then spent the next 3 years searching for a river route to Inca lands and named the whole river system for the object of his serach. In 1529 his forts were abandoned and overrun and Caboto returned to Spain with a fraction of his crew and reported all he'd heard of the Inca and their riches.

After it proved difficult to reach Peru from the rivers of la Plata, the focus of the Empire shifted to the Pacific coast by the crossing at Panama. The seat of the Vice-royalty of Peru was Lima, and the colonies of the entire continent were administered from there until 1739, when Colombia and Venezuela were broken off to form their own vice-royalty. The Spanish occupied Incan cities and established new ones of their own. These mostly lay along the old Inca road, which ran from Quito to Santiago. The first permanent Spanish settlements in Argentina were founded near this route, which runs through the north-western part of the country to Bolivia. Santiago del Estero, Mendoza, Córdoba, Santa Fe, San Juan, and San Miguel de Tucumán were all founded before Buenos Aires was reestablished in 1580 by a party of Asucenos. Meanwhile Uruguay was left practically undisturbed until Colonia de Sacramento was founded 100 years later by the Portuguese.

Small numbers of Spanish settled in Asunción, took Guaraní wives, went raiding for indian serfs, established encomiendas, fought off the more aggressive Chaco indians, and sent out parties of settlers to found new cities. Attempts by Asucenos to extend Spanish rule to the north and east were short lived. The settlements were too remote to attract more settlers, and were ultimately swept aside by the increasingly aggressive Portuguese raids out of Sao Paolo in the 1630´s.

old Paraguay
The Asucenos were more successful with Santa Cruz de la Sierra in modern day Bolivia. Santa Cruz is now the second most populous city and the economic capital of that country. The initial settlement was twice forced to relocate to the west before it arrived in it´s current location. These initial settlements and indian reductions were often relocated due to hostile neighbors or problems with land. Villarrica, which became Paraguay´s second most important "city", was initially founded deep into what is today Brazil, but was relocated six times during the 1600's.
The most obvious direction for settlement by Asucenos would seem to be back down the Paraná river towards the Atlantic Ocean. Santa Fé was founded in 1573 five hundred miles south of Asunción on the west bank of the Paraná and seven years later Buenos Aires was finally reestablished.

By 1600, Asunción had already peaked in its importance. It was the chief town of a region sparsely populated by Spaniards, with no gold or silver or copper mines. Yerba mate became the province´s chief cash crop, but this was heavily taxed by the viceroyalty. Technically speaking yerba wasn't even a crop as it had not yet been domesticated and was rather gathered from wild stands. By the medieval rules of commerce in the empire, all goods exported or imported were to be traded through Portobelo, in Panama. So Paraguayan goods travelled by river to Santa Fe or Buenos Aires, put onto carts and drawn up to Perú or over to Chile, put on boats to be sailed to Panama, unloaded again onto carts to cross the isthmus, and then finally loaded into ships and sailed to Spain as part of a convoy. The natural attraction of Buenos Aires as a port lead to a good deal of smuggling, but this could only mitigate, not replace, the loss of legal trade.

Buenos Aires gradually ecplised Asunción in importance during the 1600´s, but the onerous economic regulations kept either city from pospering. Buenos Aires is today one of the largest and liveliest cities in the world and we might have expected colonial Paraguay to have prospered in some degree by its reflected glory. However, the region remained a distant and often forgotten province of Perú for 200 years. Not until 1776 was Buenos Aires granted its own viceroyalty and trading privledges.

And now, just in case you still didn't think I was a nerd, here is an animation I've made of the colonization of this part of South America:

Friday, August 10, 2012


I had a rough day today. Nothing seemed to go well, though there were a few small victories. Prof. Marisol's morning 2nd grade class really enjoied the story I read, a translation of "If You Give a Moose a Cookie". And I'm happy with the sylabals game I thought up for Marisol's afternoon class, though she was outside talking to someone and didn't see it.
The general theme of the day though was that I am some ridiculous foreign guy, who is really serious about things nobody else cares about, and really bad at everything people do care about. This is the classic Peace Corps bad day. At least I'm working though. We actually had five whole days of class this week, which is exceedingly rare, and I have been working at the school mornings and afternoons and at the library during the lunch shift. I think part of the bad day is that teachers were just worn out working five days in a row.

The library is the most frustrating. Though I love being able to build the institution as I see fit, it needs to be able to survive longer than my eight remaining months in town. The more books we receive and the more I develop our organizational system, the more I freak out that my counterpart, the librarian, is completely uninterested in, and for all appearances uncapable of learning about library mangement. She isn't paid well, so I don't feel like I am able to really be hard on her. She got her job through political patronage, which is also how the librarians in the dysfunctional Nueva Germania library got thier jobs. There was no interiew process or open applicaion period as far as I know. It was just her turn.
She ought to be involved in every decision, I ought to be building the institution with her, but the instant I try and steer a conversation away from facebook her eyes glaze over and I am lucky to get two words out of her.
The job of librarian is not considered to be anything more than a receptionist here as far as I can tell. While there are some smart and generally easy to work with and motivated people of the library comission, in practice everything for the library needs to go through the municipality, which is of couse the center of politics in the district. I want to talk to the mayor, who is also the preisdent of the library commission, about the future of the library, about the importance of hiring someone who is halfway interested in such things, about how we should buy or order a new wooden shelf for the books we just got, but she is very busy, and when I go in to her august chamber I barely get the time of day. She calls me "el muchacho de la biblioteca", or the boy from the library.
Muchacho is used to refer to young men up to age 35 or so, so it shouldn't bother me but it does.
And it comes back to the fact that the people here are just living their normal small town lives, and I am this wacko with my scruffy beard and goofy hair who rides a bike and speaks poorly. And I can tell that most folks just don't care.
This week was mostly good. Yesterday was actually awesome, we did a great library visit with Sylvia's 2nd grade afternoon class and then Vidulina's 3rd graders loved the spelling in groups game I did with them. It is good to work. I was going crazy during vacation. Kids under 14 years of age think I'm awesome, which is always what energizes me. I am about as lonely as I have ever been but am glad that I've held up well and have been productive in my various little projects around the house. Tomorrow I will do laundry.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

La historia

For years I have been trying to wrap my head around the legacy of the Spanish Empire. I studied it in college courses, I studied abroad in the Dominican Republic, the first Spanish colony, and I've been further trying to understand it since I've been here.

Context context context.
 In order to understand history correctly, so that we can understand the context in which it places us, we should try to place ourselves in the time and mindset and context of those who lived in the period we are studying. When we speak of places, people, historical battles, or ways of doing things in times past, we must specifically indicate why these things matter to us. If they don't tell us something about the present, we can relegate them to a less important shelf of history, and let those interested investigate them at their leisure.
There are so many names, or names of places, and especially names of obsolete objects or processes that are repeated in historical accounts without any explanation of what they are or why we might care at all about them. When we read about obscure locations, how is it ever acceptable to not include a map? A historically accurate map which does not confuse us with future boundaries or cities (unless they are labeled as such). There is so much popular history that is not well explained... it may well lead me to become a high school history teacher myself. History about the Spanish Empire tends to be even worse, which I think may have to do with the Spanish emphasis on formalism.

Anyhow, I am going to do my best to explain my understanding of Paraguayan history, to make it relatively concise but to explain as much as possible with as few unexplained references to unknown concepts as possible. Let us begin.

Cristoforo Colombo, a Genoese, sailed for the kings of Spain in 1492 to try and find the (East) Indies by sailing west. He had an idea that the Earth was quite a bit smaller than generally agreed upon at the time, that Eurasia was larger than it actually is, and that Japan was further to the East than it is. He ended up discovering the continents of North and South America. The Americas had already been discovered by Asian hunter-gatherers 20,000 years ago, but they didn't tell anybody in the Old World about it, so it had to be discovered all over again.
The Spanish very quickly went about colonizing the newly discovered lands. Spain was a medieval kingdom which was at the top of its game. It had just emerged finally victorious in a 700 year struggle for the Iberian Peninsula against the Moors, an Islamic people from North Africa. The two main "Spanish" kingdoms, Aragón (which was a sea empire in the Western Mediterranean) and Castile (which was a land empire in the middle of the peninsula) had also just united. The result was a large empire, successful in war but without any current opponent, which had naval capacity and expertise and a large population base.

This empire still existed in a fundamentally medieval setting. Though cannons were common, small firearms were rare, expensive, and of dubious utility. Ships were now larger and more advanced than they had been in previous times, but were still primitive, dangerous, and tiny compared to sailing ships of the coming centuries. The Catholic Church was central in politics and daily life. Leonardo da Vinci, Copernicus and Machiavelli were still living; Galelio, Luther, and Cervantes were not yet born. Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire for more than a thousand years, had only fallen forty years before. The intellectual flowering of the renaissance had begun in Northern Italy, but was still developing, and in any case hadn’t been around very long. The "Enlightenment" of the 18th century lay far in the future.

This is important, first because the medieval culture and systems of the Spanish Empire were carried by the conquerors to the American colonies. The priority of the church, the bizarre and suffocating economic regulation, and the feudal encomienda system were all to shape the new colonies and the nations they would become. Second, we must understand the empire in this way so as to differentiate it from the later British colonies and the United States which would arise from them. Our natural inclination is to imagine the Spanish colonies as a sort of Hispanic version of the British North American colonies because it is with the latter that we are familiar. However, it is a false cognate, so to speak. These two colonial systems were settled in completely different cultural contexts as a result both of the different eras in which they were established and the national cultures they arose from.

Briefly, the Spanish set up the New World equivalent of feudal manors. They subjugated natives to make them serfs while the conquerors made themselves into new lords. They sent their serfs into the mines and the plantations to extract the wealth of the new lands to finance the Kingdom’s long and costly wars in Europe. The church was active and involved in all of this, while also energetically seeking to convert the new serfs. Though Anglo American colonists treated the natives no better than their Spanish predecessors, preferring to forcibly relocate or exterminate them rather than enslave, they did not, especially in the northern colonies, try to turn themselves into feudal lords. It was not (I'm generalizing here, okay?!) the extracted wealth of the colonies that enriched Great Britain, but the intercontinental commerce which grew up between the colonies and the home state.

When the Conquistadores arrived on the shores of the Americas, and promptly went about subjugating and destroying every indigenous society or people they encountered, we need to understand them in this context. As much as anything, the Spanish explorers and Conquistadores and missionaries need to be understood as incredibly hard-core dudes. The speed at which they overthrew the large and powerful Aztec empire, crossed Panama, and overthrew the even larger, more powerful and much more inconveniently located Incan empire with essentially medieval technology and embarrassingly small armies is mind boggling.
We could think of these small forces of Conquistadores as analogous to a crack team of CIA agents. Tom Clancy stuff. Who were able to use technology, wiliness, military skill, political manipulation, and finally brute force to bring down these massive but vulnerable empires.
And it probably also is worth remebering that like the Spanish empire, the Aztec and Inca empires were both built by conquest and composed of subjugated peoples.

The missionaries were also hard-core dudes. They left behind the modest comforts of 16th century civilized life traveled into lands unknown to themselves or their compatriots, learned new languages and convinced thousands of natives to convert to an alien religion. We feel pretty gnarly when we go back packing for three days. These guys went for months, in unknown jungles with the most only basic belongings.


Colombo's expeditions initially arrived in the Caribbean. On his second voyage he landed on Hispañola and established Santo Domingo 1498. Santo Domingo would be a major colonial port city and provided support and supplies to the Conquistadores in their expeditions to what they would discover to be the mainland. Gold was found on Hispañola, but just enough to get the Spaniards excited. By poking their way around the region for riches they found their way to Mexico, which they had overthrown by 1521. They also landed on the coast of Panama and established an outpost there in 1510. Nine years later they had crossed the isthmus and began exploring the Pacific Coast of South America. They once again used their excellent nose for treasure to sniff out the Incan empire, which they had overthrown by 1532. Lima was established in 1535, making a line of Spanish settlements and captured cities that ran from Peru, along the spine of the Andes through Ecuador and Colombia to Panama. The idea that Lima was founded 70 years before Jamestown boggles my mind.

South America is defined geographically by three features: The Andes mountain range, the Amazon River and rainforest, and the "Rio de la Plata". The Rio de la Plata is not actually any one river, but includes all the rivers which flow into the inlet between modern Argentina and Uruguay.

The Amazon, though navigable, was inhospitable and unattractive to Europeans, especially in the first stages of colonization. It served as a huge barrier between the northern and southern parts of the continent. The Rivers of La Plata were mostly navigable, and proved to be important for transportation, communication, and commerce, but were largely neglected by the Spanish until the last years of the Empire. The Spanish were focused rather upon the Andes and New Spain (Mexico) and the silver and gold that could be got there.

The Andes are the longest mountain range in the world, and stretch from the Eastern coast of Venezuela (further East than Puerto Rico) through Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Chile, all the way down to the Tierra del Fuego at the southern terminus of the continent. They are very tall and rugged, are seismically and volcanically active, and rise up almost directly from the Pacific coast along most of their range. At equatorial and tropical latitudes the climate in these high mountains is quite agreeable, and for this reason they formed the heartland of the Incan and later Spanish South American empires. They are often called the backbone of South America. This is doubly appropriate: the chain of Spanish settlements was connected by roads built upon the old Inca roads and which ran through the Andes, from Caracas to Bogotá, to Quito, to Lima, to La Paz, to Potosí, to Salta, to Mendoza, and then to Santiago, forming something of a spinal cord within the vertebrae of the mountains.

this is the best map of the Spanish colonies I have found

Asunción was founded just two years after Lima. Spanish explorers coming down the Atlantic coast had attempted to establish a foothold near what would later be Buenos Aires, but were driven off by violent natives. Rather than packing up and going home, they went up the Paraguay river, and established Asunción in 1537. Asunción is the oldest surviving Spanish settlement South of Bolivia, which is to say it is older than any city in Chile, Argentina, or Uruguay. If we´re counting, it is also older than any Brazilian settlement South of Sao Paolo.

And here lies the question in the mind of anyone who visits Asunción, knowing a little bit of the history. "Is this it?" I have spent some time in Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and Ecuador, and have marveled at the cathedrals and other majestic remains of the old imperial cities, built with blood and sweat and gold and stone. To have visited Cuenca, Ecuador, amid the truly awe-inspiring Andes, where there are not one, but two enormous and beautiful cathedrals, crumbling yet impressive government buildings, all built around two charming streams, with steps going every which way and markets and everything build out of or carved from the rock, in a city that is not even a national capital; AND THEN to explore Asunción, "madre de ciudades", is indeed a disappointment. So what happened? How could the city the founded Santa Cruz in Bolivia, Buenos Aires, Corrientes, and Santa Fe in Argentina, not to mention nearly every town and chipa stop in Paraguay, remain so unremarkable?

Friday, August 3, 2012

where we stand

During winter vacation, which ended this week, I was suddenly inspired to make a hand drawn map of South America for the library. I banged it out during that weekend, and I am very happy with it. I get really tired of seeing maps of just Paraguay, as though it weren't surrounded and profoundly affected by Brazil, Argentina, and Bolivia, not to mention the Pacific Ocean and the Andes. This map is an attempt to highlight the unity of the continent, by showing how "biomes" (habitats/environments/geographical regions...) stretch across borders.
This map has touched off a whole historical kick for me, which I will be subjecting you all to the fruits of in subsequent posts.