When my wife and I traveled to Paraguay twice in 1993 to adopt our first child, we saw no inflatable pigs.
We were not looking through the eyes of John Gimlette, however, who has written a hilarious, informed anti-travelogue about this South American nation once described as an "island surrounded by land."
Gimlette, a London lawyer, first saw Paraguay in 1982, during the Falklands War, when the beleaguered, kidney-shaped country remained in thrall to Alfredo Stroessner, whose flinty dictatorship embraced Nazis-in-hiding. He has returned a number of times, drawn to dicey politics, vicious insects, war-littered wastelands, a violent history -- and the sweet, resilient people.
His book provides a guide to all this, and does so with a bite and style.
Having arrived for a return visit in 2000, Gimlette checked into The Gran Hotel in Asuncion. He saw an American couple who wanted to be settlers in Paraguay's frontier but found conditions too tough and were fleeing.
"The husband turned on me. 'What are you here for?'
" 'I'm just a tourist. . . .'
" 'There's nothing to see. Go home.' "
In the next 320 pages, Gimlette describes what he saw by refusing to follow that advice: Napoleon-influenced leaders. German Utopians. Exotic flora. Grotesque wars. The spirit of the Guaran, the largest native group in the country.
You read this book to understand Paraguay's history and people, not for sightseeing tips. With generous detail grounded in the author's personal experience, this is a travel book of the mind.
While reading, my thoughts returned to a day in February 1993, when my wife had taken a side trip to the Iguassu Falls, where eastern Paraguay intersects withBrazil, and I spent the day hiking Asuncion with the 4-month-old we were expecting to adopt bundled in a Snugli.
Had I Gimlette's book at the time, I would have learned that the city near the magnificent cascades, Ciudad del Este, is possibly the smuggling capital of the world, where clandestine trade flows like the thundering Upper Parana River. Not far away, the Itaipu Dam silences the torrent. The Itaipu has twice the capacity of the Grand Coulee.
Who benefited? During construction, some in the nation got rich. Most didn't.
"A quarter of all Paraguayans didn't even own a light bulb," Gimlette observes.
Back in Asuncion, I sat in the shady embrace of lapacho negro trees in Plaza de Los
She spoke, but I did not understand the birdlike trills of her words. After reading Gimlette, I know it was the language of the native group that populated the region when Portuguese and Spanish conquerors arrived in the early 1500s. A persistent tongue, it is spoken today by 90 percent of Paraguayans.
So who are inflatable pigs? Not the Guaran, whose fighting spirit infuses the people of Paraguay with all that is brave, reflective, and resigned. The pigs are the leaders of this poor, sad nation whose history is worth knowing and whose land is worth seeing. Gimlette tells tales well worth reading.
Bob Sprague is a copy editor at the Globe. He can be reached by e-mail at RSprague@globe.com.