I AM GOING TO BRAZIL. Probably Rio. I know this because my editor has revealed too much. Vaccines are required “only in the interior.” Visas may be purchased at the airport. The weather will be hot and muggy. When I suggest bringing my Speedo, my editor replies slyly that a Speedo might just be all I’ll need. Definitely Rio. I will avoid the interior altogether. I will have a real Brazilian beach vacation. I will find a trainer at the workout stations at Ipanema. I will get my back waxed. I will drink fruit juices. I pack only light and skimpy things. And when I realize it’s Carnival time down in Rio, I shimmy my hips at the sad dads at school drop-off. Then I check my email and read a message from my editor. I frown.
I get on a plane bound for Paraguay.
Paraguay is completely landlocked. It is all interior. When I fly into Asunción at dawn, I see from the airplane window not wide sandy beaches and azure ocean but a vast brown smudge of a river. In line at passport control I read that one does not flush toilet paper in Paraguay, then forgetfully flush in a bathroom just past customs. I wince and reach into the toilet to retrieve the paper before it goes down. The water is hot. I then brush my teeth with insect repellent. The bottle has exploded in my shaving kit. I see four seasoned-looking U.S. travelers in the airport. “Why have you come to Paraguay?” I ask. “Just racking up countries,” one replies.
I arrive at my hotel at 6:30 in the morning. My room will be ready in just five more hours. I set out on foot into the city. What will my South American beach vacation become? Paraguay is famous for its swamp. The Pantanal, which spills over from Brazil in the northeast, is one of the largest freshwater wetlands in the world, home to giant anteaters, six-foot otters, and a species of guinea pig the size of an actual pig. Could I have my beach vacation in a swamp? No. There are only three planes a week to the Giant Swamp, and they fill up two weeks in advance.
As I walk, I text with a Paraguayan journalist, the friend of a friend of a friend. Like everyone else, he is out of town on vacation (February is Paraguay’s broiling August). But he’s happy to be my remote GPS, guiding me through the surprisingly quiet side streets of Asunción. There, along cobbled lanes paved with volcanic black flagstones, grand private residences hide away behind walls festooned in red and yellow trailing flowers. The illusion of quiet and wealth is quickly shattered when the little roads drop me onto the main boulevards and the worst kind of truck-thick traffic blasts my ears and sprinkles my skin with grit. Eventually my Paraguayan texter directs me to the Lido Bar in the city center. I sit down at a marble counter that oxbows in a big loop around the restaurant. A waitress with pink lipstick, green eye shadow, and an intriguingly large gap in her teeth brings me fish soup.
“¡Con pescado del río!”—with fish from the river—she says with a long roll of the “r.” The soup is mild and velvety, with speckles of oregano and a wedge of lime. It is nice and fresh and pleasantly lukewarm, in contrast to the searing heat outside. Mothers and daughters sit and chat. It is a peaceful, quiet spot.
Suddenly the street explodes with noise. Outside, men in orange shirts pound drums, and three grass-skirted girls no older than 14 grind their hips to the rhythm. A sad little carnival. Several middle-aged men across the street hold up their smartphones and take videos of the gyrating girls. I turn away and try to concentrate on the soup.
“What kind of fish is this?” I ask.
“Surubí,” the waitress says. “Su-ru-BEE.” It is a giant catfish from the depths of the great river Paraná. Later, Vidal Dominguez, the chef at the traditional Asunción restaurant Restó Kamambu, will tell me that Paraguay is the embodiment of its mighty rivers and the first real nation of South America. The first colony to declare independence from Spain, back in 1811. One of the first to free its slaves. Paraguayans, he will tell me, can even claim to be the founders of Buenos Aires and the first pioneers of the Río de la Plata. Nowadays it torments people here when snobby Argentines turn up their noses at humble Paraguay.
The waitress brings me a fruit juice that is bright orange and flecked with seeds. Heavy and musky, it tastes just the way I imagine the interior should taste.
“Mburucuyá,” she says.
With her round pink lips she makes each syllable count: “M-bu-ru-cu-ya. Es un afrodisíaco,” she says and raises her eyebrows. An aphrodisiac. The only reply I can manage is a sentence I’ve prepared in advance.
“Where is the best beach in Paraguay?”
“¿La playa? Encarnación. En-car-nas-yon. Muy linda.” All the city names in Paraguay are deeply Catholic and oddly erotic-sounding. Asunción. Concepción. Encarnación.
OK, then. Encarnación. I rent a car and head into the interior’s interior.
There are not many Paraguayans left. Argentines, Brazilians, and Uruguayans killed more than 60 percent of them in the War of the Triple Alliance during the 1860s, and the losing Paraguayan army eventually crumpled to nothing near the confluence of the Rivers Paraná and Paraguay. The defeat is a national tragedy that carries the kind of cultural weight in Paraguay that the genocide does in Armenia. But on the beach at Encarnación it seems the descendants of the war’s survivors are all here. Thousands of umbrellas crowd a narrow strip of sand up to the edge of the Paraná. Across the river, the Argentine city of Posadas looms like a provocation to emigrate. An ultralight aircraft flies above, displaying a real estate advertisement across its wing that informs the shoehorned-in crowd below that there is “space available.”
As I take in the hot, stifling scene, a pattern starts to emerge. There are many slender women paired up with heavyset men. The men have their big hands around metal cups with metal straws and are taking occasional sips of a drink called tereré. Like the yerba mate popular in Argentina, tereré is made with dried mate leaves and water. But unlike mate, which is consumed hot, tereré is made with ice water and drunk cold, often with the addition of pulverized aromatic plants like mint or eucalyptus. The women standing next to the heavy men on the beach at Encarnación carry thermoses containing ice water. When the men have drunk down the liquid part of their herby brew, the women refill their cups and the men sip again. To the non–South American, tereré tastes like a sharp and bitter potion with notes of freshly mown grass. But this does not deter Paraguayans. As one of the only English-language guidebooks to the country puts it, “Paraguay is not a tea country, or a coffee country, or a wine country.” No it is not. It is a tereré country. The Ministry of Tourism is even trying to put together a Ruta Yerba Mate—a kind of tereré wine road—along the route I traveled on my six-hour drive to Encarnación. There is something of a national struggle in this, too. Last year tereré became so popular in Argentina that Argentines began claiming that tereré was an Argentine drink. This did not go over well in Paraguay.
All the city names in Paraguay are deeply Catholic and oddly erotic-sounding. Asunción. Concepción. Encarnación.
I sit under one of the umbrellas in a plastic chair at a café facing the river-beach, watching the tereré drinkers. I ask a pretty waitress to bring me a typical Paraguayan cocktail. She brings me a Sex on the Beach. The sun begins inching downward. In front of me small children are loaded into transparent plastic globes and then set loose upon the water where they spin like hamsters on a wheel. Jet Skis swarm so close I can smell the exhaust. The sun seems to pause at the horizon for a moment and then slips out of sight posthaste. I have my Sex on the Beach and realize that this is no kind of beach vacation. A cluster of police boats charges in and disperses the crowd of Jet Skis and bathers. I am about 200 miles from Iguazú Falls, a magnificent tropical Niagara just over the border in Brazil and Argentina. I decide that tomorrow I will abandon Paraguay, drive to Iguazú, and fly to the real Rio.
I awake the next morning and feel suddenly guilty. If the Paraguayans could have heard my judgments, they would have said I was thinking like an Argentine and looking con desprecio (with disdain) at all the sweet and simple things they have to offer. Paraguay has never done anything bad to me. In fact, Paraguay has only been very nice to me, feeding me lovely fish soup and eight different fruit juices. Paraguay rented me a car without any fuss and, in the national handicraft store in Asunción, sold me a real carved wood vase and a beautiful leather-covered travel thermos, neither of which were made in China. And aside from the rows and rows of lomadas nearly flattening my tires on the road to Encarnación (lomada means “speed bump,” I learned a little too late), I have felt constantly cared for and helped by these easygoing, well-meaning people whose faces still carry a heavy trace of their precolonial forebears. In fact, aspects of pre-Columbian culture are distinctly more present in Paraguay than nearly anywhere else in South America. Sometimes when I try to follow a conversation in Spanish, I realize it’s not Spanish at all. Nearly 90 percent of the Paraguayan population still speaks Guaraní, a language that flows over the ear like river water and, according to one native speaker, is highly onomatopoetic, evoking with its sounds the dense and verdant natural world.
I leave Encarnación and, instead of turning right to Brazil, make a left toward another river town called Ayolas. I find lodging at a hotel populated by sportfishing tourists and then wander down to the riverbank. All at once the Paraná opens up to me. Big and flat like a plus-size Mississippi, it is studded with emerald islands. The air is thick with the howls of monkeys and the chirps of dozens of varieties of birds. I find a swath of completely empty beach, strip down to nothing and slip into the river. It is as warm as a bath and carries me gently downstream. I get out and float again and again and again. On my walk back to the hotel I see a group of swimmers bobbing in the current, talking with one another in a language I don’t recognize. It’s not Spanish and it’s not Guaraní. It is Portuguese. Ayolas, it turns out, is full of tourists from Brazil.
At dawn the next day, a fishing boat collects me from the bank and skims across the Paraná, now turned pearly green and even more luscious in the early light. As we cruise against the current, I try to make small talk with the fisherman, Sergio-Pablo. I ask him how many times a week he eats fish.
“To tell you the truth,” he says, “I don’t really like fish.”
To the non–South American, tereré tastes like a sharp and bitter potion with notes of freshly mown grass.
Sergio-Pablo baits my hook with a creature that looks like the larval form of the alien in Alien. We drift in the wide sweep of current until Sergio-Pablo hooks a tremendous fish. It is something called a dorado, pure gold in color and furious in combat. Again and again the three-foot-long animal leaps into the air until Sergio-Pablo offers the pole to me and asks if I would like to “manejar.” I take the pole and fail to manage. In an instant the hook pulls clear and the big gold fish shoots away. “That was an enormous, enormous dorado,” Sergio-Pablo says in true anguish. And deep within my rusty Spanish I find the right words and say them both to Sergio-Pablo and to Paraguay.
“Lo siento,” I say. I’m sorry.
We fish again. This time I’m the one who hooks something. Something very big lurking on the bottom of the Paraná. A surubí. As I work the pole I think how I will triumphantly bring it back to the waitress at the Lido Bar in Asunción. She will cook it and say, “Sopa de pirá con tu pescado de río.” But just as that image comes to mind, the line snaps and the big fish disappears. “Paraguay—You Have to Feel It” goes the tourism board’s slogan for the country. I think I just felt it.
Before Sergio-Pablo can bait my hook with another alien, a storm that has been circling the wide floodplain makes a beeline for our little boat. We can see a solid sheet of rain coming fast and hard over the water, turning the surface of the Paraná into corrugated steel. A lightning bolt splits the giant sky, and suddenly it doesn’t seem so smart to be pointing a fishing pole into the air. Gunning the engine, we head for one of the emerald islands, the rain and the spray and the river beneath us all merging into a blur.
We find a fishing encampment and sit under the cover of trees as the tormenta—a perfect word for “storm”—passes overhead. Sergio-Pablo and a boy chat amiably in Guaraní. A cup of tereré is passed around and we all sip from a common straw. A cast-iron pot hangs from a tripod over the embers of a fire.
“Fish soup,” Sergio-Pablo says. A bowl is poured out and we share it with a single spoon. It is that same sopa de pirá I’d had in Asunción, made from a meter-long surubí the boy on the island had caught during the night. But it is the original, more savage version of the soup, with great bones and giant flaps of skin. Sergio-Pablo tears into it, eats the skin, and sucks the bones dry before tossing them into the embers.
“I thought you didn’t like fish,” I say as the rain pours down and the monkeys and birds howl and chirp. A genuine smile ripples across the fisherman’s face, then a chuckle, and then a full-throated laugh. His warm bright chortle fills the air until it is eventually swallowed up by the overwhelming rush of the river and the rain.
Paul Greenberg is the author of Four Fish and American Catch.