Sipping tereré in Paraguay

Tereré on a hot day

Gran Chaco is the second least accessible part of South America (preceded by the Amazon jungle). We pass this giant uninhabited area with a passenger and smuggling bus. The bus is definitely overloaded, there is a crowd in the aisle, lots of bags and boxes with unknown contents cramped all over the corners. Passengers travel for several long hours standing. I can easily see suffering on faces of some passengers, particularly obese women with children and plenty of bags on their laps. The already hot and stuffy air is additionally filled with an unusual mix of sweat, smell of diapers and outdated interior of the bus. Along the way, we pass several anti-drug checkpoints and eerie and incredibly slow border posts. The air is still filled with the smell of diapers. Twenty more hours driving through the wilderness and we arrive to Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay.

Just take a look around, at least every second individual will hold in his hands a big thermos with guampa and bombilla, a distinctive cup with a metal straw. That is how do you know that you are in Paraguay. These are necessary utensils to drink tereré, the Paraguay’s national drink.

Terere was invented by the indigenous Guarani people, nowadays living in Paraguay and western Brazil. For centuries, the drink has been an integral element of social life. Leaving home, the inhabitants of Paraguay would usually fill their thermos with ice-cold water and season it with herbs, often mint or lemon grass are used. When planning a longer trip, they use ice instead of water and sometimes also refreshing citrus juice.

Guampa is traditionally made from animal horns, mostly bull’s horn, a bombilla is a metal straw with a filter at the end. Guampa is filled to about 2/3 with dried leaves of yerba mate. Yes, it’s almost the same mix as hot yerba mate, the drink extremely popular in Argentina. Then guampa is filled with cold water from the thermos and shared among group of friends.

It’s a perfect refreshing drink, a way to survive the typical 40-45°C heat in Paraguay. It is also an important social ritual, getting people closer together, creating new bonds and building mutual trust. There is this prevailing image of children, adults and older people in a variety of situations: sitting, on the bus, walking, operating a vehicle or working in the store, all of them sipping tereré. Similarly, the ice, herbs and other equipment’s sellers are omnipresent countrywide to meet the market’s needs.

Paraguayans are famous for their extra-long siestas, well extending into the afternoon. In fact siesta often begins around noon and lasts sometimes until the sunset. This light-hearted attitude especially dominates everyday life in Paraguayan province.

A talkative girl on her bicycle

Ybucuí is a peaceful village where friendly and hospitable people will eagerly chat you up. Luckily in Spanish. In fact, the native language of Paraguay is Guarani, which is understood by around 90% of the population.

While almost all Paraguayans speak Spanish, it is worth to mention that children learn Guarani as late as at the age of 5 or 6 years. Older children and adults use the two languages ​​interchangeably. Nearly perfect bilingualism is quite remarkable, perhaps it is the only such country worldwide.

I outside on a veranda of a randomly chosen bar and start an already usual evening card game with my friend. Soon a little 4-year-old girl approaches us on her bike, she stops by and keeps talking and talking. What is great about Spanish is that just unlike a number of other languages, you don’t have to know the language perfectly to understand and to be understood. I am a bit absent-minded at some point and then this little cheerful girl boldly looks at me, raises her tone and says aloud:  “Que te paso?!!?” (“What’s is going on with you!”). I think that some kids can be really funny (not all, but certainly some of them).

In the morning we go to the national park Parque Nacional de Ybucuí to reach the waterfalls. We have been dreaming about a riverside, lakes and waterfalls for days to remedy the unbearable scorching heat. Swimming in the river with cool refreshing water by the waterfall serves a perfect relief. Besides, we meet a friendly Paraguayan family who camp in the national park just like us. We are invited to asado, or a barbecue. Here we try carne de vacuno, a very fragile roast beef, a kind of a pork chorizo ​​and a morcilla

mezclada, a sausage, which main component is coagulated beef blood.

The whole evening goes by talking by the fire. In the meantime, a big monster from the swamp invades our camp. Later on it turns out to be just a giant toad, the size of a toddler’s head. It’s getting quieter and quieter, at some point it is already very late so we go to sleep in our tents. Terere actually favors making new acquaintances.

A reflection about the world

My short trip through Paraguay brings in some reflections. I am visiting Ciudad del Este.

Itapiú dam is a pride of Paraguay. It appears on 100.000 guarani banknotes. Its modern visitor center offers free briefing on its history and specifications. This huge hydropower, co-owned by Paraguay and Brazil, provides 80% of energy demand for Paraguay and nearly 23% of Brazil’s energy needs. After screening the briefing video, I follow hordes of tourists (I still have no idea where all these people came from, as in Paraguay there are hardly any tourists), we get inside a few comfortable, air-conditioned buses to travel around and see the monster, the second largest dam on the world, closely from the Paraguayan and Brazilian side. It’s a giant long-term investment financed by international funds. Probably only a few European countries could afford a similar undertaking.

Construction of the dam required resettlement of about 10,000 families living in the areas along the flooded Paraná river. The dam is 196 meters high and nearly 8 km long, its volume comprises massive 12.3 million m3 of solid material. It is capable of producing more than 90 TWh of electricity per year, enough to light 171,000,000 light-bulbs, 60 watt each for a period of one year. The cost of the investment, greatly inflated by inefficiency and corruption has been estimated at almost $20 billion.

We’re talking billions here, but this morning I woke up and watched people living in one of the side streets near the bus station in Ciudad del Este. I heard children crying. Someone walked out to start a bonfire and boil a bottle of water for their morning tea. Dozens of families live in these plastic makeshift tents. Who is to blame for those kids born directly on the street, who are most likely to stay here all their lives. Maybe it is the older generation, irresponsibly making the family bigger? Maybe it is the corrupt and negligent state forgetting about the poor and needy? Maybe the church stubbornly promoting and imposing its utopian beliefs? Maybe it is just us, indifferent?

Maybe no one is to blame, after all, the world has never been fair.

February 2012

terere