Exotic Cities, Part Ten: Filadelfia, Paraguay
July 21, 2009
I was having lunch with Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi at Opera Plaza Sushi in San Francisco about six months ago, and she said to me, “Every so often, I need to get away from it all. I want to go where nobody knows me, where I can relax and have a change of scenery. So I go to Filadelfia, Paraguay. It’s a wonderful place! You should go.” So I did.
Filadelfia is still very much off the beaten track. Almost all Paraguay tourism is concentrated in the capital, Asuncion, and I certainly won’t knock it. It’s a great place to buy luxury goods cheap (because they are smuggled in), and the hookers are hot. But Asuncion is not the exotic Paraguay. To see that, you have to go to Filadelfia.
There’s only one bus a day between Asuncion and Filadelfia. It’s an all-day trip, departing in the morning and arriving in the evening, so pack your lunch. And keep your eyes peeled for celebs in disguise, because more of them are following Nancy Pelosi’s example.
As you head north from the capital, you’ll see the scenery change from farmland and grassland to the deciduous scrub forest of the vast Chaco Boreal, which makes up the entire western half of Paraguay. This is a land where cowboys rope steers and shoot rattlesnakes (or vice-versa), where weird desert cacti burst open with hundreds of deadly tarantulas, where people speak the strange Guarani language (which only they can understand), and toothless hags cut the throats of chickens to cast spells on their enemies. Unknown creatures leave mysterious tracks in the sand, homosexuals are hanged from gibbets, rowdy men indulge in eye-gouging for sport, and packs of wild dogs howl under the full moon. So, it’s kind of different.
When you arrive at the bus depot, you’ll be aware immediately of the German influence that governs the whole town of Filadelfia. The depot is designed in the Sonntags Geschlossen style of architecture, which was so favored by King Ludwig II of Bavaria, and which finds its finest recapitulation in the Greyhound Bus station in Sudbury, Ontario. In front of the Filadelfia bus depot, which is (not surprisingly) located on the Avenue Hindenburg, you will see the only statue of Fred Astaire in the world. Astaire was actually German (born Fred Austerlitz), and his father was born in Linz, Austria, not far from Hitler’s birthplace in Braunau am Inn. The two families were acquainted, in fact.
An old bus marked “Westin Filadelfia” is ready and waiting to take new visitors to the only hotel in town. Hotel Manager Michael Czarcinski (not related to Kazimierz Czarcinski, who opened the first ear wax clinic in Poland, in the city of Cracow, in 1959) personally greets every new guest. The hotel is never full enough to make him happy, and he is the town’s number one tourism booster. “We’re not actually affiliated with the Westin hotel chain,” he admits. “I just stole their name for the hell of it. I mean, what can they do to me?” He hints slyly with a wink that he has good enough connections in the capital that no one would ever be able to give him any trouble.
The Westin Filadelfia is not a bad place. Quite cheap — only $35 a night. There’s no TV or air-conditioning, but there are flush toilets, and the maid service is diligent. (For a few dollars, the maid will tuck you in at night, if you get my meaning.) The furniture is of high quality. It’s made locally by the large German Mennonite community that dominates life in Filadelfia.
The Mennonites started arriving in the 1920’s and built themselves a fine settlement, which is on the outskirts of town. They live communally, and their economy is based on farming and handicrafts. Another influx of German immigrants followed in the 40’s, and a lot of them are still alive in their eighties and nineties. So, Filadelfia is very much a German town in every respect. The only other significant population is the local indians, the Guarani, who mostly work as servants or as street vendors living modestly off the tourist trade.
Werner’s Tavern is open late for new arrivals wanting a good dinner, and it’s all good German food, washed down with the local beer, Fila, which is brewed by the Mennonites. Werner’s is really the only place to hang out in Filadelfia. Werner Missgeburt, the owner, is a big, jovial fellow who tends the bar and likes to laugh and tell coarse jokes. He likes to say that he never has to throw anyone out of his establishment, because it’s easier to let them stay and die of old age.
Werner’s is cheerfully decorated with Nazi war memorabilia, including a half-size replica of a Stuka dive bomber. This is where the old Germans gather every night to sing those good old patriotic songs of the Third Reich — although they all insist they were never members of the Nazi party or involved in any atrocities.
Former President General Alberto Stroessner used to come up to Filadelfia occasionally and drink beer with the Germans. They all remember him as a good friend, and there are plenty of framed pictures on the walls of the tavern to prove it. “All the Guarani girls flirted with him,” says Werner. “And he had his pick of them.”
The Guarani women are actually quite lovely for indians. They have big breasts and make money posing bare-breasted with tourists for photos. It’s actually a pretense. They don’t normally go bare-breasted, but the tourists assume they do and routinely pay $5 to be photographed next to a half-naked woman with big knockers. (This is the sort of free-enterprising initiative Canadian indians could learn from, except that they’re all so seedy-looking no one would want to photograph them — with or without their clothes.)
The Guarani also have a fake festival for tourists called the Beer Festival, which takes place several times a year. The highlight is the beer bottle dance, in which a woman balances a stack of ten beer bottles on top of her head — one on top of the other! Of course, they’re attached to each other, but it’s still an amazing balancing act. Indian musicians also play bogus indian music, and vendors sell beans and rice, as well as a stew made with capybara, which is a giant rat. (I didn’t get to try it, but the Krauts said it was pretty good if you have plenty of beer to wash it down with.)
As I mentioned earlier, celebrities have occasionally been seen in Filadelfia. They pretend to be ordinary tourists and usually go unrecognized since there’s no TV. Jack Black, Teri Hatcher, Cindy Crawford, Bono, Peter Tork, and Pete Wentz have all been spotted in the past year, according to Michael Czarcinski. But they all register under false names, so there’s no proof on paper.
So what would attract such people to Filadelfia? There isn’t much to do. “It’s just a different sort of place,” says the hotel manager. “They can hang out with the Germans and drink beer and eat schnitzel. They can go riding on a horse. Or they can rent a gun and go outside the town and do some shooting, although there’s nothing out there you’d want to stuff and put over your mantel.”
Czarcinski has a brainstorm for a tourist attraction, however — a sort of theme resort set up like a concentration camp. “You come for a week, let’s say, and you have to sleep on a bare pallet and live on starvation rations. They put you to work doing something arduous and beat you if you don’t cooperate. And there would be a fake gas chamber — just a lot of smoke, that’s all. We could even make things kinky by tying the women to racks in their bras and panties and whipping them. But the Mennonites are against it, and they have the most power around here.”
The Westin has some mysterious permanent residents, who occupy the top floor. I was told they were ex-Mennonites who left the community and fell in with the old Krauts. They have laptops and wireless Internet in their rooms, and they do things with money, but they won’t say exactly what or for whom. So I suspect there is some sort of deep, dark secret in Filadelfia the world doesn’t know about.
One of the old Krauts in the clique at Werner’s claims to have participated in a secret Nazi polar expedition in 1938-39. He was an 18-year-old seaman aboard the research ship Schwabenland, commanded by Capt. Alfred Kothas. The expedition explored parts of Antarctica and brought back valuable scientific information. He showed me a naval patch with the words “Deutsche Antarktische Expedition” and the outline of Antarctica with a flag marking a region called “Neu-Schwabenland.” The Schwabenland carried two flying boats called the “Boreas” and the “Passat.”
Much to my delight, another Canadian writer arrived during my stay in Filadelfia. Lorette Luzajic, of Toronto, was on a promotional tour for her new book, Weird Monologues for a Rainy Life (irreverent ramblings from the end of the world). The hotel manager had invited her up from Asuncion in the hope of injecting some culture into Filadelfia, as well as promoting the place for tourism. However, he had conveniently neglected to tell her that there was no bookstore or library in town. But everything worked out fine anyway. When she went over to Werner’s and the old Krauts found out she was of German ancestry, she immediately became everyone’s “girlfriend.” All the old buzzards took turns having her sit on their laps, and they all told her how beautiful she was and treated her like a goddess. She sold every copy of her book that she had brought with her and wished she had brought more. (Find out more about Lorette and her book at www.thegirlcanwrite.net.)
Filadelfia has a sister city in the U.S. (Would that be Philadelphia, by any chance?) You guessed it! Mayor Michael Nutter told me, “We don’t have no Paraguanians here in Philly, but they’re welcome to come over, as long as they pay their own way. We’ll take ’em out for some good Philly steak sandwiches.” This arrangement was made by Michael Czarcinski, of course, in the hope of stimulating tourism. He told me, “When you publish your article, the tourists will really start pouring in. Then maybe I’ll have enough clout to push that concentration camp idea through.” Okay, good luck with that!
Recommended vaccinations: Rinderpest, Bowen Hutterite Syndrome, Chombley wart virus.
Copyright@ 2009 by Crad Kilodney, Toronto, Canada. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org