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  • So far in Asunción, I've found myself fending off a drunken Paraguayan with dreams of American rock stardom, gorging on Swedish potatoes at a pan-national semana santa feast, and sitting in a brothel at 2 a.m., arguing about American tax policy (it was the only place open for a drink on Easter night). Not bad for a city that Thompson called "about as lively as Atlantis, and nearly as isolated."

    Asunción is the birthplace of independence in South America, having declared Paraguay's freedom from Spain in 1811 (back when other revolutionary governments were still ruling in the name of the deposed Ferdinand VII). They don't let a guy forget it around here. Yesterday, I visited the Casa de la Independencia, commemorating the spot where the plan for emancipation was hatched. Later on, I found myself standing on the corner of two streets called "Independencia Nacional" and "El Paraguayo Independente." When the heat convinced Thompson that "the only safe place to see Asunción is from the inside of a dark, open-front cafe," he chose a joint called Bar Independencia.

    The country's bicentennial anniversary was last year, and they still haven't taken down the posters of Paraguayan national heroes dotting the streetlamps downtown. Every block has three or four of them, black-and-white images of persons significant to Paraguayan history. In the US, you might expect such a roster to be long on politicians and heads of state, but here, it seems to consist mostly of teachers, poets, journalists, composers, and other humanities types. The reason for this might stem from Paraguay's history of dictatorship. "El Supremo" José Francia ran the show for twenty-six years in the early nineteenth century; Alfredo Stroessner ruled from 1954 to 1989, and in total, his Colorado Party held the presidency for more than sixty years. When you haven't had many particularly admirable leaders, I guess you have to cast a wider net for your heroes.

    Thompson called Stroessner "the last dictator in South America." That label turned out to be premature, but he was certainly the most durable. In Thompson's only published article from Paraguay, he describes what was then a pretty limpid opposition to the Stroessner regime, with most of the country's educated class living in voluntary exile someplace like Buenos Aires, Rio, or Montevideo. Asunción was a bit of backwater in 1963. Why go home to set things right when life along the coast was just kind of nicer anyway?

    National pride is a funny thing, and in a place like Paraguay, it seems to ebb and flow. This country has fought and lost some devastatingly stupid wars. It lost more than half of its population in the War of the Triple Alliance, a violent and pointless nineteenth-century campaign that makes Iraq and Afghanistan look like West Side Story dance-offs. In the years after, some third of surviving Paraguayans just up and left. It's a long way from there (and a half-century of strong-man dictatorship) to the kind of good-natured civic pride currently on display in Asunción.

    When you drink enough beer in hostels and expat bars (and brothels), you find yourself called upon pretty regularly to defend or condemn your homeland. This is particularly true if you're an American — for whom, I've noticed, the trend is towards a kind of weary, apologetic resignation. But the parade of paper luminaries around Asunción is a reminder that it's perfectly acceptable to compartmentalize a country's villains and misdeeds while keying in on its heroes and core values. And it's that kind of sequestration that allows a traveler to project something other than his country's foreign policy.

    "It would not take a dictator to drive a man out of this town," groused Thompson in 1963. Maybe not, but it's possible that patriotism has less to do with why you leave and more with what you bring along.

    To keep up with new stories from the Hunter S. Thompson Trail in South America, follow me on Twitter.
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