Dispatch from Paraguay #2: The Lido, Tobati, and the Fiesta de San Juan
Since the last update focused on generalities, I’ll try to be more concrete this time, stick to the facts.
Our normal daily routine is more or less as follows. We wake about 8 or so. In the morning with Lulu’s mother Mirella we eat a typical Paraguayan breakfast, café con leche with either alfajores, which are a kind of unleavened pastry made with dulce de leche, or ham and cheese sandwiches with fresh bread from the local bakery. Twice a week we have Guarani classes that last for two hours. After class, or after breakfast if we don’t have class, we pack our swim gear and I put on my running clothes and we walk the mile and a half or so down to the local sports club, Sajonia, where Lulu and I are members. Lulu swims and I run for an hour or so, and then I usually jump in the pool afterwards. So far the weather has been great—the bright and clear blue skies that are Paraguay’s signature—and the last few days the chill has left the air and we’ve had temperatures in the high 70’s. After exercising we walk back home and prepare lunch. After lunch there is time to go downtown, to read and write, to meet up with friends, to go to the dentist or the supermarket. Lulu also twice a week has her dance lessons. The rest of the day is punctuated by two meals, the merienda and the dinner. It gets dark around 5:30, when we eat the merienda, which is usually similar to breakfast. Dinner is usually served around 10pm. Conversation around the table lasts until around 11:30, and we’re in bed by 12.
The end of this week has been particularly eventful. Friday was the first warm day, and we took advantage of it by going downtown to do some shopping. Lulu wanted to get some jeans, and I bought some t-shirts and pajamas. But the highlight was meeting Mirella at the Lido Bar, which is perhaps the most famous restaurant in Paraguay, for lunch. The Lido is in the main square and it serves a variety of traditional Paraguayan food: milanesa, empanadas, mbeju, lomitos, accompanied by a variety of freshly blended fruit juices, a variety that changes according to what’s in season. But the main specialty of the Lido, especially in winter time, is its caldo de pescado, fish soup, and that’s what we ordered, along with orange juices. The fish soup is made from surubi, which comes from the local Rio Paraguay. It’s brimming with the delicate meat. Lulu and I were especially hungry from traipsing around all morning, and the fish soup was just plain righteous.
On Saturday morning we met new friends, Sasha and Silvia, at the bus station for a trip out of Asuncion to the small town of Tobati, located about 2 hours outside of town by bus. Sasha and Silvia are friends of one of Lulu’s high school friends, María del Carmen, Maka. Sasha is a philosopher, and Silvia a psychologist, and both of them teach at the National University. On the bus ride out, Sasha and I sat together, ate chipa and dulce de batata, and talked about the connections between the philosophies of William James and Ortega y Gasset, the political history of Paraguay, Obama and the Paraguayan president Lugo, popular representations of the United States in Paraguay, and how globalization is—and is not—providing opportunities for progress in Paraguay. Sasha is a passionate and driven advocate of philosophy and education. When I asked him how he maintains hope that he can make things better in Paraguay, he said simply: “I don’t lose faith.”
Tobati was a welcome break from the constant noise, rush, and bustle of Asuncion. We got off the bus in the main square. As Lulu’s mother says: todos los pueblitos en Paraguay son iguales, all the small towns in Paraguay are the same. In the center of the town lie the church and the plaza. Tobati’s church is large, made out of adobe and brick, and painted white and yellow. The plaza is clean and open, and the streets buzzed with motorcycles, some with drivers as young as 13 years old, others carrying multiple people and various objects (including a desk). A motorcycle is much more useful than a car in rural Paraguay because the dirt roads are often too poorly maintained for four-wheeled traffic. We strolled lazily around the city, admiring the colonial architecture. We bought some oranges and tangerines from a local vendor and chatted with him about the town. It was interesting to note that he and I had about the same level of Spanish fluency; it’s clear that he was more accustomed to speak in Guarani, even though he had recently moved to Tobati from Ñemby, a suburb of Asuncion. After that we walked a mile or so out of town to the Villa Artesenal, the artist’s village that is sponsored by an association for Paraguayan art. They provide a place to educate local artisans on how to market their crafts, to preserve them and make them economically viable. The art ranged from beautiful wooden tables, one featuring a hand-carved chess set based on the War of the Chaco, to clay pottery, to handmade clothes, the traditional ñanduti and aho poi, bracelets, and masks. After a lunch in the plaza of chicken empanadas from the local supermarket, we caught a bus back to Asuncion.
The ride back was longer—the bus stopped literally every 5 minutes or so to pick up a random Paraguayan who had emerged from wherever it was he came from to catch a ride into Asuncion. But we made it home around 5:30, just before dark and went for a quick run in the park to shake out our cramped legs. The day was only halfway done. Since we hadn’t eaten much that day, we ate an early dinner that Mirella prepared for us, a delicious pasta with tomato sauce, and got ready to meet a group of Lulu’s high school friends in Sajonia for the annual Fiesta de San Juan.
The Fiesta de San Juan is really neat. It showcases traditional Paraguayan food and dance. We met up with Maka and José, Labi and her son, Giovanni, Renzo, and the infamous Gisselle, and wandered among the various festivities. They had horses out on the beach parading around, a fire for coal-walking, an effigy of Judas Iscariot that would later be lit on fire and exploded with fireworks, a group of professional dancers in typical dress, and lots and lots of typical food and beer. The best performance of the night was the bottle-dance, a peculiarly Paraguayan dance in which the women shuffle and weave around the floor balancing wine bottles on their heads. It is a competitive dance. Most of the girls topped out around six or seven bottles. But two girls kept on stacking bottles on their heads. They had to bring a ladder to pile them on—eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen wine bottles stacked end to end on the top of the head of a dancing girl. The girl that won ended up breaking her record, balancing sixteen wine bottles on her head, outside on a windy day!
We stayed out fairly late, chatting, drinking beer, and catching up with Lulu’s old classmates. At around 1:30 in the morning, we piled into a couple of cars, all of us including Lulu’s nephew, niece and a friend of theirs who were also out enjoying the night and went home. We arrived home ready for bed but happy from the full day.
This morning, Sunday, we got up in time to eat breakfast and drive 45 minutes or so out to the cemetery where Lulu’s father is buried for the 10am mass. It is father’s day here in Paraguay, just as it is back home in the States. The mass was given by a Brazilian priest, and a young man read a nice poem about his father. When the mass finished we went to the grave of José Adolfo Cuellar, Lulu’s father, to pay our respects. The cemetery is really nicely maintained, with beautiful trees and flowers scattered over the premises. There were lots of folks who had come to visit their fathers. Many families brought chairs and sat around in the fields, drinking tereré and, I assume, talking about family and loved ones among other things.
Afterwards, we went to Raul’s parent’s house to eat paella. Raul is the boyfriend of Lulu’s sister Carolina. Raul’s father was in the Paraguayan military, and their family is really into sports, particularly tennis. Raul’s niece, Montse, is the best youth tennis player in Paraguay and has a world junior ranking. There we spent a typical Sunday afternoon, eating and talking. Raul’s father was especially eager to teach us Guarani. I learned the words for “monkey” and for “lazy.” And he tried several times to teach me a sentence that means something like: he’s a smart fellow. But it literally translates: “he is a monkey that can dance pirouettes on a wall without falling off.” Unfortunately, I don’t remember the Guarani exactly.
We left the house of Raul’s parents around 3pm, came home and went to sleep for an hour and a half. The siesta! We woke up and here I sit, writing away, satiated by a recent merienda of mbeju and cocido, two typical foods that Lulu to my great delight has just learned to cook!
So, there it is, three full days from our trip here. As you can see, we are happy and busy. Love to all and happy Father’s Day, especially to my Dad, Poppy, and the great Grandoogle!