I opened my mouth to protest, but at that moment the music restarted. She pressed her ear up close to my face, which disappeared into an impenetrable thicket of curls and ringlets. Everything went dark and my nose tickled.
‘You can’t say that here,’ I muffled. ‘The pyragues…’
The Pyragues was the name everybody used for the secret police. It was a Guarani word which meant – literally ‘the hairy footed ones’. It was a cute reminder that their raids were sudden, silent and invariably savage.
I don’t think it will be long. Paul Theroux’s grip on me as my favourite travel author is surely coming to an end. Two pretenders to the throne are coming up quickly, and out of the two, it is John Gimlette who is probably just ahead (Michael Jacobs is the other).
Having already enjoyed his trek around the top right hand corner of South America in Wild Coast, Gimlette is again back on my favourite continent, this time in it’s deepest heart, Paraguay. Originally there in 1982, Gimlette’s original intention for this book was for it to be a work of fiction, but in the end Paraguay’s incredible past proved larger than fiction and Gimlette trekked around the relatively unknown country, in all directions from the tropical capital of Asuncion.
Like Wild Coast, the level of research here is deep and exhaustive, but never for the reader. Gimlette casts a wry eye over the history, particularly politically or Paraguay, and he admits that he uses frivolity to cover his own anger at what the population have endured almost since their inception at the hands of their leaders. From his attempt to meet Stroessner, “We can’t find him, he must have gone for a walk”, tracking down Nazi runaways, Trekking to the back of beyond frontiers as he follows the massive, absurd figure of Francisco Lopez and his wife, the indomitable Eliza Lynch, Gimlette shares his knowledge in such a way that it is seamless with his travels, you can almost smell the gun powder from the triple alliance war and the tragic war in the Chaco as he travels to some of the remotest places there must be in the middle of a great continent.
Laugh out loud funny, Gimlette is unpretentious, engaging and genuinely curious about Paraguay and it’s colourful history. The engineers and doctors (including a seemingly large contingent of English at various times) that helped Paraguay fight it’s enemies throughout it’s history, as bits were torn off it and it’s population was decimated by the ‘flamboyant stupidity’ of it’s leaders. Talking with friends and other Paraguayans Gimlette probes them as much as he feels he can, in some cases they are piercingly honest and at other times there is almost complicit denial, or an acceptance of this is what it is like.
For some reason, Paraguay had been slowly creeping up on me, I’ve been to the triple frontier while visiting Iguazu falls, but that’s the closest I got. After reading this I definitely want to go, Gimlette has has illuminated the hidden heart of the continent and painted it in vivid colour.
It was obviously an excursion they’d enjoyed many times before and Mrs Berera wasn’t the least bit perturbed when her chair slid backwards and forwards across the truck as Lino whirled along in a tornado of red volcanic gravel. We tried to keep an eye on her in the mirror but sometimes Mrs Berera slid completely out of view and it wasn’t until the next fold in the earth’s crust – and the reversal of centrifugal forces – that she made her stately reappearance.