Last month, I got a surprise email from a CNN editor who asked whether I could write a brief listicle (I hate the word) on “ten things you didn’t know about Paraguay” to accompany an upcoming program on celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown” travel series. While I knew Bourdain’s reputation, I had never seen the program but I did know something about Paraguay – I first visited in the 1980s and, while working for a publisher whose name I’d rather not mention, I traveled there extensively during the 1990s.
While Paraguay’s no longer a priority for me, I was able to expand that list from ten to 14 for CNN’s benefit. Nearly surrounded by the South American giants of Argentina and Brazil, not to mention Bolivia, Paraguay has no knockout attractions in its own right, but it can be a place where (to quote myself) “closer contact and the lack of preconceptions can lead to memorable, even intimate, experiences at underrated sites.”
Bourdain’s agenda was a bit different from mine (the video above shows the entire program). While his background is gastronomy, he was also seeking traces of his great-great-great grandfather, who immigrated to Paraguay in the 1850s. In the process, speaking with local journalists, historians and even a (fairly recent) German immigrant, he doesn’t whitewash the country’s unfortunate history of vicious dictatorships and Nazi refugees, and an economy that has long depended on contraband (though that may be changing with a soy boom).
While Bourdain is a chef, he’s no food snob, and he relishes street eats like fried empanadas (I almost always prefer baked), calorie- and cholesterol-laden lomito sandwiches, and sopa paraguaya (“Paraguayan soup” but, in reality, the local version of cornbread). He does show people eating ice cream (underrated here) and sipping mate (which Paraguayans sip cold as tereré in the withering summer heat), but he doesn’t comment on either of them.
To me, the most appealing dishes Bourdain ate were fresh river fish – the surubí (Paraná catfish) and dorado (“river tiger,” so called because it’s great sport for game fishing) - and the program shows the local fishermen on the Río Paraguay. Sad to say, he didn’t get far beyond the capital city of Asunción, but his river excursion did take him to the ruins of Nueva Burdeos, a brief French colonization experiment where his ancestor had once been. Nueva Burdeos is now Villa Hayes, named for the obscure US president who awarded the savannahs and thorn forests of the Gran Chaco to Paraguay after the country’s War of the Triple Alliance against Argentina and Brazil.
In the end, Bourdain’s local contacts manage to locate documentary evidence of his family connection, who may have imported gunpowder to support the dictatorial regime of Carlos Antonio López (whose portrait appears in the banknote above). Those contacts believe the late Bourdain relative lies in the city’s Cementerio de la Recoleta (not quite so prestigious as its Buenos Aires namesake), but poor record-keeping and subsequent construction make it impossible to locate the tomb.