Soccer final fever in Paraguay

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South America » Paraguay » Asunciòn
July 21st 2011
Published: April 28th 2012
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Due to the delayed departure of our flight from Bolivia to Asuncion, capital city of Paraguay, we arrived in the city after dark. Thankfully I had pre booked a hotel and after a quick tour of the central city area our taxi took us to the Palace Hotel, an historic hotel in the old city. It proved to be a good choice, comfortable modernised rooms and wide corridors full of interesting old furniture and art pieces. After settling in we headed out to look for something to eat. The streets were surprisingly deserted - only a few footpath stall holders packing up for the night - but we were eventually able to find a chain style café and a bowl of soup. Later we slowly walked back to the hotel admiring the rather decrepit architecture we passed on the way. Most of the buildings had not seen fresh paint for years. Many of them were however gaily decorated with red, blue and white bunting in celebration of the 200th anniversary, in May earlier this year, of the country’s independence from Spanish rule.
Next day we walked for kilometres around the city centre. First we visited the massive former railway station, one of the first built in South America, which now houses a railway museum. It was an enormous building edged with a long row of columns. Across the road was a large plaza which was sadly the home to many squatters, living under plastic covers and surrounded by filth. I guess most of them were from the country hoping to improve their lives in the city. Far too many children were playing amidst the rubble of their temporary homes.
The surrounding footpaths were lined with stalls, many selling red and white soccer shirts, flags and balls. In a couple of days time Paraguay was to play Uruguay in the finals of the American Copa match. Though Uruguay had already won the cup 14 times you could feel the vibe amongst the local population - they were buzzing to have made the finals. We planned on watching the match somewhere in the country before we left for the Iguaza Falls, our next destination. We visited the main square, Plaza de los Heroes, but were unfortunately not able to enter the domed Panteon of the Heroes wherein lie the remains of ‘heroes’ of Paraguay’s many wars. The impressive pink coloured building, the Museum of the National Congress, fronted Plaza Constitution and had the wide river behind. More fountains were in front of the Cathedral - we had a brief look inside but we’re both really seen one cathedral too many already.. And everywhere bunting adorned the main buildings and rows of red and white soccer shirts hung for sale along all the footpaths.
I was fascinated to see people everywhere drinking mate through silver straws from small cups. Mate is a drink made from steeping dried leaves from the yerba shrub in hot water which is then drunk through a slotted straw. The cups are rationally made from hollowed gourds but though gourd cups are still mainly used we did see many modern variations. Everybody who carried a mate cup (and most people of all ages seemed to be carrying them) also carried a thermos of hot water which was used to top up their cups. Dozens of stalls and shops sold nothing else but the implements needed for this pastime.
Many stalls also were selling colured brightly lace, nanduti, which means spider web in the indigenous language. The lace pieces were woven in intricate spirals, many resembling colourful flowers when completed. Also leather belts seemed to be popular tourist items. Another interesting, and slightly worrying discovery, were petrol stations selling alcohol and with bars attached. Many of the streets around our hotel had one on the corner.
Next day we caught a bus to Ciudad Del Este (City of the East) or alternatively known as the ‘supermarket of South America’ The trip took 6 hours and the scenery was boring and flat. The city was incredibly busy as it was on the border with Brazil. Traffic and shops for as far as you could see. We had booked a hotel very close to the border and it was slap bang in the middle of all that chaos. At least we had no trouble finding somewhere to eat that night! Before crossing into Brazil - we had already decided to walk across - the main road leading to the border was constantly jammed with cars and people pulling trolleys loaded up with goods being traded. As in Asuncion the streets were full of soccer paraphernalia. The match was tomorrow evening - we were planning on spending the next day at the Itaipu Dam before finding a bar to watch the match in.
Totally overwhelmed by the sheer noise outside on the street we retreated to our hotel for a slightly more peaceful environment. There were lots of neighbourhood parties though - whether that is normal behaviour or just over excitement preceeding the soccer match next day I don’t know.
Next morning we caught a bus to the site of the enormous Itaipu Dam, second largest dam in the world, - only the Three Gorges Dam in China is bigger. We enjoyed joined the free tour of the site. The construction of the dam began in 1975 and today the dam’s generators supply nearly 80% of Paraguays electricity as well as 25% of all electricity used in Brazil. We were driven around the edges of it - it had a long semi circular wall. We certainly didn’t specifically plan on visiting the dam but did find the tour well organised and interesting.
Later that afternoon we wandered the market area near the border crossing and planned a route which seemed to be less crowded with stalls for our departure from Paraguay the next day. If anything it seemed to be more crowded than the previous day. We were amused by all the stalls which were being set up for alcohol sales. Even the main roundabout on the road leading to the big shopping plazas on the riverbank and the Friendship Bridge (border crossing over the river) was covered in crates of beer. Amazingly the streets emptied close to the beginning of the big match and by the time the match began the streets were deserted. All the shops were closed, stalls shut up and though we found a couple of tiny eateries with small TV’s broadcasting the game, we had trouble finding anywhere with a crowd of people in it waiting for the game to start. Eventually in one of the side streets we noticed people heading into a shopping centre. Inside it was crammed with locals of all ages standing watching the big screen televisions in the public areas of the centre. The lucky ones had seats within some of the shops and cafes and were enjoying the game with drinks and food.
We arrived just as the game began - it was hot and extremely noisy. Everybody was in very high spirits until it became obvious that Paraguay had little chance of winning the final. The mood quickly became very sombre so Jerry and I decided to leave. However the fact that Paraguay lost the game didn’t seem to affect the party afterwards! The streets went totally crazy - cars driving around town with the occupants hanging out of their windows, motorbikes roaring and deliberately backfiring. Everybody was singing and shouting and drinking - certainly drowning their sorrows with gusto - leaving us to wonder just how big the party would have been if they had won the match!
Next morning we left Paraguay by walking across the Friendship Bridge - there was no obvious immigration area and we were eventually directed to one of the booths that cars stop beside when they exit the border. Once we arrived in Brazil we found a taxi to take us to our hotel in Foz de Iguacu, the Brazilian gateway city to the Iguazu National Park.

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