In The City Of Asuncion
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
A WALK THROUGH THE CAPITAL OF PARAGUAY-A TOWN OLDER THAN ANY IN NORTH AMERICA, BUT STILL NEW-ITS TELEPHONES AND TELEPHONE GIRLS-A GENERAL VIEW OF PARAGUAY-ITS CITIES, TOWNS, AND VILLAGES-ITS QUEER COLONIES, ONE OF WHICH WAS NAMED AFTER PRESIDENT HAYES.
COME with me this morning and have a look at the capital of Paraguay. It is now summer; the people are moving about in cottons or linens, and at midday the earth seems to steam. The children go to school very early and every-one rests or doses at noon. The mornings and evenings, however, are pleasant and we shall be comfortably cool in the mule cars which take us to all parts of the city.
But first let me say a word about Asuncion. She is the oddest municipal maiden on the South American continent. She is the social, political, and industrial mistress of all things Paraguayan. She has the government buildings, the colleges, the banks, and chief business houses, and still she is so small that she might be hypodermically injected into the cheek of Chicago, and would hardly raise a pimple on that fair lady's face.
Asuncion has only about 30,000 people. Her buildings are almost all small; they are chiefly one-story houses, and outside the government structures there are not 200 of them more than 30 feet high. The Paraguayan who lives in a two-story house struts about like a king, while the owner of a three-story block is a nabob.
Still this maiden, Asuncion, is wonderfully beautiful. Mother Nature has clothed her in the brightest of dresses. In her gardens lemons and oranges grow; great palm trees throw their shadows upon her, and the amorous waters of two mighty rivers lave her feet. She is seated on the high east bank of the Paraguay river, just opposite the mouth of the winding Pilcomayo, which has flowed down from the Bolivian Andes 1,500 miles to get to her. She is situated in the centre of the west border of Paraguay proper, in a good position to command the whole country of which she is the capital.
I get my best idea of Paraguay by thinking of Illinois. It lies on the South American continent in much the same position that Illinois does in North America. It is at the junction of two rivers; along its west side is the Paraguay river, which cor-responds to the Mississippi, and on its south and southeast is the Parana, corresponding to the Ohio. Both the Paraguay and the Parana are navigable for large river steamers, supplying a broad waterway from here to the Atlantic, similar to that of the Mississippi in its course to the Gulf of Mexico. Paraguay proper is just about as large as Illinois. It is 375 miles long and about 200 miles wide, including all the land lying east of the Paraguay river. There is a vast wilderness on the other side of the stream, called the Chaco. This is the wild west of Paraguay. It is inhabited by Indians and wild animals, and is said to possess vast forests and extensive pastures, but not much of it is as yet explored. Paraguay proper is not unlike Illinois in character. It has excellent soil and good pastures. The face of the country is rolling; in some places there are low mountains which furnish numerous streams, so that you can hardly fence off a farm with-out including good water.
It is in Paraguay proper that the greater part of the people of Paraguay live. They are the offspring of the Indians, united to some of the best of the Spaniards who settled South America. One of the first cities established on the continent was Asuncion; it was built seventy years before John Smith landed at Jamestown, and the Spanish-Indian babies born then were gray-haired before Boston sprang into being. Paraguay was for years the leader of wealth, civilization, and culture in this part of the world, and it was not until the close of our Civil War that it fell out of the race. It then had a fight with its neighbouring republics, Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina, which lasted five years and killed off almost all the men. This ruined the country. A report went abroad that it was desolate, and the bulk of the European immigration since then has gone to Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil.
There are today less than 10,000 foreigners in all Paraguay. I have an estimate from the Secretary of State which shows that it has only 5,000 Argentines, 2,000 Italians, 600 Brazilians, and 800 Germans. The remainder are French, Swiss, Americans, and English. In addition to these there are 600,000 native whites and mixed breeds; and there are about 130,000 pure Indians. There is so much Indian blood mixed with the white that it is hard to tell where the red man's blood ends and that of the Caucasian begins. You see a dash of gingerbread in the complexions of most of the people, and the language generally used is that of the Guarani Indians. It is a beautiful language, more soft and melodious than even the Spanish, and is used by everyone out-side the cities.
I have said that Asuncion has 30,000 population. The aver-age Paraguayan considers it a very large city. In my travels I have gone through the best-settled parts of the country and am surprised at the fewness of the people. There are many villages, but only some very small cities. The cities are much smaller than the books would lead one to think. The " Statesman's Year Book" mentions a number as containing from 5,000 to 20,000 inhabitants. Those I have seen have not one-third the number claimed. I spent some time in Villa Rica, which is in the interior, about a hundred miles east of Asuncion. It is put down as having 19,000, but I venture to say that it has not one-third that number. Villa Concepcion, which is 250 miles north of Asuncion on the Paraguay river, has certainly not 10,000 people, and Villa Encarnacion, the largest town in south Paraguay, is not nearly so large.
The towns are composed of thatched huts from fifteen to twenty-five feet square. The smaller cities have one or two streets of one-story brick dwellings, the walls of which are covered with stucco and roofed with red tiles. Some have walls of stone and others are roofed with palm bark. The larger cities have parks or plazas, but outside Asuncion none has paved streets or any modern improvements. Even Asuncion is still lighted by coal oil, and but few of its people ever heard of a sewer. The sanitary arrangements of many of its houses are filthy, those of the chief hotel, for instance, being dirty and unhealthy in the extreme.
Although Asuncion is older than any city in North America, it appears delightfully new and bright; its streets cross one another at right angles, and they so slope toward the river that every good rain gives them a washing. They have sixty inches of rain here every year, and when it does rain it pours. Only a few of the streets are paved; most of them are of red sand, so that the city has a rose-tinted foundation.
Let us notice the houses. They are built close to the side-walks in solid blocks, forming one-story walls along the street, with here and there a door or an iron-barred window. You can tell the different houses by their colours; some are painted rose pink, some sky blue, some blood-red, and others of all shades of yellow and green. We are now going towards the post office; it is of a light lavender tint. On our way we pass a market-house painted rose pink, and a little farther on there is a cathedral the colour of rich Jersey cream. Even the public buildings are painted. The president's palace has a tinted exterior, the houses of congress are of a delicate lilac, while the official newspaper is printed in a monastery-like structure of Indian red.
It seems odd to think of newspapers in Paraguay; but there are newsboys everywhere, poking their dailies under your nose. The papers are printed in Spanish, and sell for about two cents of our money a copy. They are folios of the old blanket-sheet shape, containing little news but huge advertisements; here is one that has telegraphic dispatches, including cables from Washington and Rome. Asuncion has a telegraph line connecting it with Buenos Aires, whence its dispatches are sent to all parts of the world. There are also wires to the interior, which are patronized to such an extent that 46,000 messages were received last year.
Asuncion is equipped with telephones, which are owned by a stock company that pays dividends of twenty-four per cent per annum, though its telephone rates are lower than any in the United States. The company charges business houses $2 gold per month, and for telephones in residences the monthly charge is only $1.5o in gold. A visit to the central station is an interesting sight. The "hello girls" of Paraguay have even sweeter voices than our own hello girls, and some of them are quite pretty. Most of them go about in their bare feet, and their low-neck dresses are as white as the orange blossoms which they wear in their hair. There are orange trees just back of the office, so that the flowers are ready at hand. The girls are standing up at their work, making the connections by putting pegs in and out of a wall of numbered holes, thereby bringing together the various customers. I ask the manager as to their salaries and am told that each girl receives about $6 gold per month, or $1.50 per week.
We see tram-cars on the principal streets of Asuncion. The cars are open at the sides and are so roughly made that they seem to have been chopped out with a hatchet. Each is drawn by three mules, which go on the dead gallop, and the cars run so far apart that you often have to wait half an hour for a ride. The different lines connect the wharves with the railroad depot and with the suburban towns. They are well patronized, but are not paying investments.
It is the same with Paraguay's only steam railroad. This was built under a guarantee from the government by English con-tractors. The English made money out of the job, but the road has paid no dividends since it was opened. It extends about I56 miles into the interior, connecting Villa Rica with Asuncion, and will be extended, it is said, down to the Paranā river. Another line which is talked of, but which I fear will not soon be constructed, is to run from Asuncion to the Atlantic port of Santos, Brazil. Such a road, while very expensive to build, would open much good country and would probably have a large traffic.
One of the strangest things in Paraguay is its money; it is a paper currency, poorly printed, and on poor material. It now comes from Germany, and is not nearly as good as the old paper money which was made in the United States. The bank notes are of all denominations, from five cents to a hundred dollars, and they are at such a discount that a Paraguayan dollar is now worth about thirteen cents of our money. The banks of Asuncion handle the " stuff " by the basketful. They cord it up like rags, but their profits from it are large. Indeed, it seems to me that there is a chance for some of our idle American funds in banking in Paraguay. The usual rate of interest outside the banks is fifteen per cent, and in the banks you cannot borrow money for less than one per cent a month. The usual discount rate is twelve per cent, and a bank gives no favours without receiving a money compensation. As a result, the banks pay large dividends. Take, as an example, the Mercantile Bank of Paraguay, upon which I have letters of credit; this bank paid a dividend of sixteen per cent last year, and its president tells me it has never paid less than ten per cent. Its capital is only $120,-000 in gold, and yet its business last year amounted to $2,000,000. The Territorial Bank, which has a capital of $70,000, paid a dividend of twelve per cent last' year, and the private banks have done even better. From these figures it will be seen that it takes quite a sum of money to do the business of Paraguay.
There is now $8,000,000 or $10,000,000 of Paraguayan money in circulation, the value of which the government is trying to in-crease by withdrawing a certain amount of the paper every year. It takes about $5,000,000 annually to "run" the government, and the exports and imports annually amount to about $14,000,000 in gold.
As to the banks, one of the most striking financial institutions of Paraguay is the Agricultural Bank, which is managed by the government; it is a bank and an agricultural department combined. Its business is to help along agriculture by introducing seeds and tools, and by loaning money to farmers on farm property. It has a capital of about $500,000 in gold. It loans on about half the assessed value of the property, charging what is here considered the very low interest rate, viz., eight per cent. Connected with it there is a warehouse filled with farm implements and seeds. The officials say that the institution is a success, although such banks in other parts of South America have been failures. This banking scheme is one by which the Paraguayan government is trying to build up its farming interests. The government also offers inducements to immigrants, giving each new settler some agricultural machinery, eighty acres of land, and a loan of twelve cents per month for seven months for each adult and nine cents for each child. It gives each immigrant a milch cow, oxen, and seeds, and also agrees to pay his passage from Buenos Aires to Asuncion. There are strings attached to some of the above gifts by which the immigrants pay back in instalments all they receive outside the land.
The immigrants who come to Paraguay settle in colonies, and not upon their farms. There are scattered over the country perhaps a-half dozen colonies composed of different nationalities. There is one not far from Asuncion, called Bernardino, which is populated by Germans. There is another of Australians, who got up a brotherly love scheme and came to Paraguay to live after the Golden Rule. They began enthusiastically by chartering a ship, each selling his property and putting the money into the general fund. In order to cut down the expense, they divided the work on the voyage among the different members of the colony: they had, however, hardly left Australia before the Golden Rule was kicked higher than Gilderoy's kite, and when it fell it came down in a thousand pieces. These brotherly and sisterly lovers acquired a pleasant way of throwing the dishes at one another during the voyage, and by the time they reached Asuncion they were quarrelling with one another as discordantly as strange parrots. As a result, they soon became disgusted with themselves, and their lands have now been re-divided.
A colony of ' special interest to the United States is situated just across the river from Asuncion, in the Chaco. This was named after President Hayes, because he decided a territorial question between Argentina and Paraguay in favour of the latter. The colony is called Villa Hayes, but they pronounce it here as though it were spelt Villa Eyes, for that is the way the Spaniards pronounce Hayes. This colony, named after our late good President, who, it will be remembered, shuddered when it was proposed to put Roman punch on the White House table, is largely engaged in cultivating sugar cane and distilling its juice into a rum so villainous that it will kill at forty rods. Inasmuch as rum is an article that is always in demand in all parts of Paraguay, the colony is probably in a good financial condition.