Paraguay has an other-worldliness to it. Have you read Gabriel Garcia Marquez' One Hundred Years of Solitude? On my three trips there, I felt as if I had been booted out of the back of a C-130 Hercules into Macondo, the town ruled over by the Buendias of Marquez, where periodic epidemics of communal absent-mindedness require that the word "cow" be painted on the side of every cow, so that people don't forget what they are.
On my last trip, in April of 1999, for Habitat for Humanity, my team of gringos had two days to kill before pitching in to mix the mortar and set the rudimentary bricks of the new houses that we were to make down by the big river that separates the capital of Asuncion from the Argentinian outback.
We decided to spend one day visiting a local resort about 30 km east of Asuncion -- Aregua. It lies on the shore of Lake Ypacarai, one of the largest in Paraguay. We expected to find there a sort of Sebago South (way south that is; Asuncion is on about the same latitude as Johannesburg).
April in Paraguay would be the equivalent of Sept/Oct north of the equator. So one might think that that would be near peak time for a resort. But in the event, we saw only a single boat during our excursion, or perhaps I should say the skeletal remains of a boat, hard aground. It appeared to be a Chris Craft, but it might have been a knock off, like the "Rolexes" sold on the streets of the capital on Saturdays -- market day.
As I recall, we saw only one little restaurant that was open, and we may have purchased a few empanadas and Cokes there for lunch. We walked down the main avenue. There were tourist shops there but no tourists. Nor were there many proprietors; they all seemed to be hiding in the tropical overgrowth. But the wares of the shops were out on the street; they were plaster busts of cartoon figures, each about a foot tall. Most popular among them were busts of Porky the Pig. There seemed to be scores of them.
We made the excursion in part because, at that time, one could make the journey via the last steam train running in South America, pulled by an ancient British engine. The schedule was such that we had to take a bus to Aregua from Asuncion, but we did catch the train on the way back. It approached us, roughly 40 minutes late, with a mighty "I Think I Can! I Think I Can!," but it never exceeded 15 mph. The single passenger car did not fit into the nostalgia for steam; it looked like an old suburban Budliner with all of its electrical stuff ripped out for scrap. Indeed, the highlight for us on the way back was lurching through the local suburbs, where we could see into the windows of real, mainstream Paraguayos in their defiance of poverty. At the Central Station in Asuncion, there was a little grade that the engine had to mount before being put to bed under the canopy of the station. We passengers were asked to get out and help push it up the incline.
As Wikipedia will confirm, Lake Ypacarai does have its place in history. In the late 19th century, Elizabeth, the sister of Friedrich Nietzsche, married the rabid anti-Semite Bernhard Forster. The two got the hare-brained idea that they could save the pure Aryan blood of the Germans from contamination by setting up a colony of settlers near the Chaco -- the god-forsaken part of Paraguay, north of Asuncion and running up towards Bolivia, where it regularly reaches 120 degs in summer and the evening's entertainment might consist of listening to a jaguar tear out the entrails of an unlucky tapir. ("Jaguar" is the only English word that is a borrowing from the language of the indigenous people of Paraguay -- Guarani.) Thus Nueva Germania was born. And thus it died when Elizabeth and her husband were not able to sustain sufficient numbers to keep the plots of land that they had provisionally purchased from the Paraguayan government, which was eager to promote settlement after 80% of the male population of Paraguay perished in the "War of the Triple Alliance," which took place around the time of our Civil War.
Elizabeth turned against her husband after this debacle. He turned to drink, but his last drink, taken in San Bernardino, a little east of Aregua and also on the shores of the lake, was strychnine. There he died and was buried in 1889. His wife went on to promote herself by tying her brother with no foundation in fact to Nazi sentiment. When she died in 1935, a photo documents that Chancellor Adolph Hitler sat before her coffin, front and center. And a rare thing for the Man Without Pity -- he looked emotionally stricken.
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