Grand tours: Welcome back, please don't pee on the plants

Writers' adventures in literature. This week: twenty years after his first visit to Paraguay, John Gimlette returns and finds its eccentric charm unscathed
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The Independent Travel

In 1982, on the brink of the Falklands war, John Gimlette was working on an estancia in northern Argentina, branding cattle and planting grass. When hostilities began, the then 17-year-old Briton hopped across the border to Paraguay, to find a country that was far from "South America's Switzerland", as some Paraguayans like to call their homeland. He found an unfathomable place of dictators and fraudsters, inhospitable jungles and lurid coups. His book, "At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig", from which this extract is taken, sees the grown-up Gimlette, now a barrister and travel writer, return to Paraguay to feed a fascination that has lasted more than 20 years.

In 1982, on the brink of the Falklands war, John Gimlette was working on an estancia in northern Argentina, branding cattle and planting grass. When hostilities began, the then 17-year-old Briton hopped across the border to Paraguay, to find a country that was far from "South America's Switzerland", as some Paraguayans like to call their homeland. He found an unfathomable place of dictators and fraudsters, inhospitable jungles and lurid coups. His book, "At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig", from which this extract is taken, sees the grown-up Gimlette, now a barrister and travel writer, return to Paraguay to feed a fascination that has lasted more than 20 years.

I was thrilled to be back in Asuncion. It didn't matter that there was so much that I didn't understand. I wasn't even sure whether the Paraguayans understood themselves. I suspected that they were letting on rather more than they actually knew. This in itself simply became another aspect of Paraguay that I just couldn't fathom.

Most of the time, I contented myself with what I could see. It was never difficult to be satisfied. Winter was retreating, taking with it the vicious pamperos that had whipped up from Antarctica. The air was becoming warmer and mellifluous and life was slowing to just a few frames per second. Someone had painted "Restless!" along Independencia, but what they really meant was listless. The oranges ripened and flopped thickly into the grass. Carts with rubber wheels carried the heavy fruit away to the viviendas, and for the rest of spring, the city's ragged foundlings would look plump and sticky.

There was still that old sense of intimacy. Although there were now well over a million people in Asuncion, it had somehow sustained the illusion that everybody knew each other, that there was a commonality or purpose, a quiet confederacy. I suppose I felt like this partly because I couldn't interpret the Paraguayan reserve, the silence on the buses, the absence of rage.

But there was something else as well. Many people lived out their lives on the street and I would see the same people time and time again: watchmen grilling meat, money-changers with satchels of bank-notes, tarot-card readers, shoe-shiners, Maka Indians hawking frail weapons. Somehow, their lives seemed to be so unjustifiably self-contained. They had territories and huddles and days

Follow in the footsteps

A feeling of emptiness.

Twice the size of the UK but with only a tenth the population, Paraguay is largely empty. Inhospitable borders with Bolivia to the north and similarly unwelcoming zones to the east and west, where Paraguay meets Brazil and Argentina, are in many places uninhabited and untravelled. There are thousands of kilometres of frontiers but only a few practicable access routes.

In this geographically remote pocket of South America, strange animals have evolved in genetic isolation and creatures similar to those long extinct in other places live on. Strange people too, have been attracted by the country's relative inaccessibility. Cannibals, Nazis and a 16th-century Anabaptist sect, among others, have sought refuge in this far-flung nation.

The country's volatile political history belies its size and obscurity. One of the first South American nations to declare independence from the Spanish conquistadors, it has fought wars with all three of its neighbours, at one point against all of them simultaneously. The country has spent much of its history under the rule of dictators and had 31 leaders between 1904 and 1954 alone. During a particularly unstable period (1910-1912), no fewer than seven presidents gained and then swiftly lost office.

Before Britain sent a consul in the late 19th century, there was not a single foreign diplomat resident in Paraguay; the first state visit to the country was not until 1964, when France's General de Gaulle made the trip. Paraguay's state of seclusion was altered dramatically and permanently by the construction, between 1975 and 1991, of the world's largest hydroelectric power plant in the south.

Getting there

A 10-night bed and breakfast stay at the four-star Hotel Internacional in Asuncion, including return flights, transfers and taxes, costs from £850 per person, based on two sharing, through Journey Latin America (020-8747 8315; www.journey latinamerica.co.uk ).

David Hodgkinson

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