Sunday, September 28, 2008

A Guide to Eating Out in Asuncion, Paraguay

In the heart of the market district in downtown Asuncion, the capitol of Paraguay, the diner El Bolsi caters to the businessmen and women needing a quick bite for lunch. A small electronic marquis above the kitchen window boasted “We have the best food south of the MASON-DIXON!!”. Noting just how far south of the famed boundary we were, this is a tall order. El Bolsi didn’t fill it, either. The quatro queso empanada was tasty but nothing that outshone food I’ve had between Asuncion and the Mason-Dixon Line. Considering that my colleague from Columbia, who was a naturalized U.S. citizen, had no clue about the Civil War reference, I wondered how many Paraguayans knew.

The rest of the meals eaten away from the Hotel Sheraton were delicious and satisfying. La Cabaña in the Del Sol Shopping Center and Paulista Churrasqueria on Avenue San Martin served tasty meals but the latter was clearly the superior. Much larger than La Cabaña, Paulista had more of a cafeteria feel but with it came the giant buffet with salads, pastas and other side dishes. Here, the waiters scurried about toting skewers of meat hot from the kitchen. At La Cabana, you had to ask for the next serving of meat and then it was brought to the table on a plate. The modest portions at La Cabana were a bit on the greasy side with gristle left on, but Paulista had similar cuts, just larger and more readily available. My favorite was the carne asada with queso, simple but tasty.

In the downtown area near the Paraguayan capitol building sits Le Flor de la Carta, a Peruvian restaurant. Our driver for our tour of Lago (Lake) Ypacarai suggested it when I asked for recommendations for ceviche, or cebiche as Le Flor de la Carta lists it on the menu. It comes with a choice of three different fish: surubi, mero and lenguado. There wasn’t an English translation for these but they were all types of white fish. The waiter told me that each dish with a single meat was rather small, so I chose the Cebiche Super Especial, which had all three. I got stuffed on the generous portions, and couldn’t finish it. My British-born friend ordered a grilled surubi plate and it satisfied even his discriminating pallet.

Il Capo, an Italian restaurant, is a few minutes walk from the Hotel Sheraton, just past the Del Sol Shopping Center and the McDonald’s. (Yes, the U.S. icon is ubiquitous, more so Burger King but nearly as omnipresent as Coca-Cola). Its relaxed atmosphere the night we visited could be attributed to the Paraguay vs. Venezuela soccer game on TV. The décor and menu were typically Italian and you could easily forget you were sitting in a South American capitol. I ate a simple pizza that was as good as any similar ones I’ve had in the states. The Brit had a much larger pizza with more toppings and once again satisfied his taste buds.

My biggest joy over the week was the Paraguayan beer Brahma. It had a mile taste but was very refreshing. The dark version actually had a sweet aftertaste that made it delicious. I wish I had found it earlier. Two other Paraguayan brews I tried were light and nearly as weak as many domestic beers. A search for Paraguayan wines proved futile, since most people there prefer the Chilean and Argentinean vintages.

An interesting departure from an otherwise routine food service was leaving a tip. In the U.S., we usually put the tip on the credit card instead of leaving cash on the table. However, in Paraguay, we were told many places that the tip could not be put on the credit card. This could make for awkward situations unless you are carrying several thousand Guaranies!

Overall, the food was delicious and I never had a bad meal. In fact, I felt that I may have gained a few pounds while enjoying the Paraguayan cuisine. Maybe the reason I tended to overindulge was the reasonable prices at even the fancier restaurants. For the amount of food served at La Cabaña, two of us ate for just under forty dollars. The regional delicacies were flavorful and tasty but not too spicy. And not exactly a place for anyone watching their cholesterol levels or their waist lines.

Hotel Sheraton Asuncion - Elegant and modern

The hotel’s website proudly proclaims that it is situated in a privileged neighborhood. Privileged indeed. The view outside my window overlooked an affluent area of the city with many large homes with huge yards like none other that I saw in Asuncion.

One wonders what the residents of these mansions felt about the ten-story hotel when it was built directly adjacent to their luxurious property.

How private can that huge pool be when dozens of strangers can look down on you from above while you’re enjoying a relaxing dip? That eight-foot security fence is ineffective against the prying eyes of visitors from across the globe.

The hotel is simply elegant to match the surrounding neighborhood, but with modern interior designs and situated far enough from the hubbub of the downtown area. It’s still convenient to many amenities, however, such as the shopping mall across the street and good restaurants nearby. And a cab ride to downtown takes about twenty minutes and costs a whopping 60,000 Guaranies, or roughly fifteen dollars.

Hotel Sheraton Asuncion hosts a small restaurant and bar on the ground floor (not to be confused with the first floor. I’ll explain later). Breakfast, which is complimentary, and lunch are buffet-style and both are delicious. Breakfast consists of hot foods, such as scrambled eggs, bacon, sausages and pancakes. I found it interesting that the restaurant does not offer syrup. Pancakes are eaten with honey! It’s a unique blend of two familiar and wonderful tastes. They also serve an amazing array of fresh fruits, like mango and papaya, small pastries and an assortment of cold cereals. (Tony the Tiger, Snap, Crackle and Pop are not included.) The orange juice tasted like it came straight from the tree, but the peach juice tasted like it came straight from the can. The coffee is strong and powerful enough to knock you into the middle of next week. Needless to say, I loved it.

Lunch had a number of salads, hot meats and sides, usually including a pasta dish. The ceviche was awesome.

As I mentioned earlier, registration and the restaurant are on the ground floor. The first floor is up a wide open staircase to the large ballrooms. The second and third floors house meeting rooms.

The fourth through ninth floors are the guest rooms and the tenth is the crowning jewel. It features an open bar area with swimming pool and hot tub and gives visitors a spectacular and breath-taking panorama view of Asuncion. The open area had a modern Greek style with columns, giving it an affluent feel. Although I didn’t get a chance to try the wet and dry saunas, I was assured by my colleague that they were luxurious.

Downtown Asuncion

Sunset over Asuncion

One important fact that needs noting is that the elevators do not ding, beep, buzz or otherwise indicate they have arrived on your floor, with the exception of the ground floor. Several times, I was caught admiring the view out of the ninth floor window, unaware the elevator was standing open. I had to make a mad dash to reach it before it was too late.

As with any place catering to the traveler, the staff can make or break the experience, no matter how luxurious and posh the hotel is. This crew was one of the most helpful, courteous and friendly staff I have ever encountered. Some spoke English but many did not. Still, the language barrier rarely caused inconvenience or misunderstandings. However, there was the time I asked for coffee and got espresso instead. It did help me stay awake for the long, boring, afternoon meetings.


Ruben, the bartender, makes the best Caipirinhas. He speaks excellent English since he lived and worked in Montgomery, Alabama. Norma and Elaine were two of the lovely young women who greeted me with a buenos dias, big smiles and kept the coffee coming each morning.


Tall and handsome Diego manned the registration desk and arranged for transportation to and from the airport as well as a couple of city tours.

Bottom line, my room was always clean and, for a week, I was happy to call it home.

Traffic Controls, Schmaffic Controls: Getting around in Paraguay

Unless you have nerves of steel, can let anything roll off your back or are suicidal, don’t drive in Paraguay. Walk or take a cab. The few traffic controls in place, such as stop lights or lane markings in the capitol city of Asuncion, seemed to be regarded as suggestions only rather than law. As a result however, some of the vehicular infractions I witnessed, including cutting someone off, passing in a no-passing zone and running a red light hardly registered even a horn blow. The small of these gaffes in the U.S. would’ve provoked the worst case of road rage imaginable.

During the cab ride from the airport to the hotel the first night, the driver straddled the middle line for most of the journey. At least this road had one. For many of the streets, any type of markings for lanes or the shoulder simply does not exist. At intersections where a stoplight stands, drivers fill in the street curb to curb in a random fashion like irregular shaped rocks clogging the bottom of a chute. If a vehicle fits into an empty space, one will be there.

Where no stoplight or sign stands, cars venture into the intersections with trepidation, looking for an opening in the cross-traffic. What designates an ‘opening’ is up to the discretion of the driver. Minor traffic jams appear as motorists on the side streets mingle with the main thoroughfare and then disappear with a minimum of horn-honking.

(Note the absence of stoplights, stop signs and traffic police in this intersection.)

In fact, everyone appears to take such things in stride. The most egregious faux pas of one driver against the next, passing in a no-passing zone on a hill, did not result in any horn-blowing or flipping the finger which are guaranteed among U.S. drivers in such cases. In our cross-country trek to Brazil, I was reminded of my years in Texas as a Mercedes-Benz passed our vehicle on a hilltop in a no-passing zone as if he were too prosperous to be bothered with obeying traffic laws. But buses and trucks are not at all above taking advantage of this opportunity to move up in the queue of cars. Our driver also made his move to pass two cars on a rise, but made it past only one before a vehicle came over the crest heading toward us. Although there was no room between the two cars, the driver of the rear vehicle eased off and let us in front of him, without any visible reaction. Imagine a motorist in the U.S. not taking this as a personal insult and affront!

Zipping in and out traffic between cars, trucks and vans are the motor bikes which by nature of its economic advantages are a widely-used mode of transportation. The riders exhibit even less regard for themselves or other motorists as they squeeze into small spaces between cars, whether traffic is moving or not. When the light turns green and everyone moves through the intersection, cars fan out taking as much of the road as they can without getting into on-coming traffic. Remember that lanes may or may not be indicated. The motorcyclists take advantage of the larger gaps, pressing their advantage to move forward. Among our fellow commuters one day was a young man with his wife sitting behind him and a toddler sandwiched between them. Despite the noise and commotion, the kid appeared to be sound asleep.

In the border town of Ciudad del Este, they’re even more aggressive and suicidal. Here, many of them run taxi services, carting people back and forth between Paraguay and Brazil, even if it means using the sidewalks when traffic stalls.

In the rural Paraguayan countryside, the motorcyclists are more prevalent but less intrusive. The morning shift mobilized in one small community as we passed through, buzzing around us like bees protecting the hive and making sure we weren’t a threat. The country folk stick mainly to the shoulder of the highway, using it as opposed the lanes which are clearly marked.

Young women are as likely to be operating motorcycles as the men. People traveled in twos and even threes, clutching tightly to each other. Since this is their only mode of transportation, the motor bikes are used to haul cargo as well as passengers. One such fellow had three large boxes strapped to the back of his bike, to the point that he could not be seen from behind. I glanced at him as we passed and saw his lap was filled with cargo as well. In the Lago Ypicarai area, one cyclist’s buddy held a large harp, while riding on the back of the bike. It was a sight to give any harpist’s heart to skip a beat.

As I mentioned earlier, the city bus is not an attractive alternative, either. My colleague was strongly advised to remove her watch if she opted for the bus. Whether this was only a stern warning or a dose of reality, we decided to take a cab.

Walking is the best alternative, especially for short distances since you can enjoy the sites and sounds of the city. While riding in a vehicle, it’s extremely difficult to take pictures while holding on for dear life.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Face Down Upon an Herbal by Kathy Lynn Emerson

As is happily usual, the second novel in a series surpasses the first. Kathy Lynn Emerson's second work Face Down Upon an Herbal, featuring herbalist/sleuth Lady Susanna Appleton upholds this trend. Two years after the first book, Face Down in Marrow-Bone Pie, Susanna's work on herbs has been published but with only her initials, giving the great many purchasers of her book no indication that the author is a woman.

While her husband is sent to Scotland on an errand for the queen, Susanna receives an order from Elizabeth to assist Lady Madderly, who is writing her own herbal. It does not take Susanna long after her arrival at the castle to realize she's been manipulated by the wily queen. A month prior to her appearance, a Scottish lord was murdered and found lying upon a copy of Susanna's published herbal. Shortly afterward, the Lady of the castle is struck down. The list of those who might want to do in the Scottish lord extends to nearly everyone in the castle who had opportunity, but no clear, discernable motive can be determined. The lengthy roster of suspects includes the master of the house, his ugly and bitter sister, and his handsome gentleman servant.

Lady Appleton and her husband's half-sister Catherine Denholm continue their work on the herbal and investigate the murders and their possible connection to counterfeiters working in the area. Thus the reason for Queen Elizabeth's sending Sir Robert Appleton to Scotland and his wife to Madderly Castle becomes apparent. Although the monarch doesn't appear in the novel, Emerson illustrates Good Queen Bess's shrewdness and her apparent disregard for her subjects' feelings in getting her way.

There is more interaction between Lady Appleton and her husband, in this second work than in the first, and more animosity which confused me. In the first novel, Emerson makes it clear that there is no love lost between the couple, who are married by arrangement. But they had a congenial relationship. In this story, there is open hostility before they manage to forge a working relationship to solve the mystery that the Queen has embroiled them in. At the end of Face Down in Marrow-Bone Pie, Susanna manages to get a legal document that releases her from any control by her husband. Now she blatantly dislikes him and makes it clear she does not want him at Madderly Castle with her. His arrival for the holidays gives them ample time to call a truce and conspire.

Emerson adds more intrigue and suspense to her second work using the backdrop of the conflict between Elizabeth and her cousin Mary to the north as the basis for conspiracy, counterfeiting and murder. It was unclear as to what the nature of the counterfeiting was. The only specific incident of forgery noted in the novel was a fake genealogy used to gain a higher station in life. The implications of falsified documents to Elizabeth's grip on the throne were vague at best, and it seemed as though the queen sent several agents to investigate the counterfeiting for her own amusement rather than her safety.

What Emerson does specify clearly are Lady Appleton's recipes for physics, poultices, salves and unguents for binding battle wounds, curing body aches and ills. During one scene, Susanna rattles off ingredients for several potions in the span of two pages in a data dump, where specific information is concentrated into one area and is mainly for educating the reader instead of entertaining them. It doesn't come off well in dialogue but in this novel, it wasn't too awkward.

Again, this second outing was better than the first and Emerson took the opportunity to deepen all the characters, enhance the rift between Susanna and Robert, and marry off Catherine Denholm. She also crafted a complex and masterful plot that keeps the readers' interest. I found myself looking forward to picking it up again whenever I could make time to read. It's sure to delight all mystery fans.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Men - An Anthology! On!!

Letting all y'all know that my short story "Safe Word" is available on as part of "MEN - An Anthology. Here is the direct link to book's page.

I got my copy last night and it's beautiful! Fellow loveyoudivine author Jon Michaelsen and I will be signing copies at Outwrite Books in Atlanta on Oct. 6! If you're in the Atlanta area, drop by and say "Hello!"

Each story is available from Love You Divine Alterotica's website:

loveyoudivine is offering a 10% on each of those ebook stories when you use coupon code MENWHOLOVEMEN

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Cataline Conspiracy by John Maddox Roberts

For a quaestor, the lowest level of elected official in ancient Rome, ca. 690 BC, Decius Caecilius Metellus gets around. He is invited to the grandest of parties thrown by Rome’s ultra-elite and seduced by the most beautiful, voluptuous and insatiable women. In the Roberts’s novel with Decius, The King’s Gambit, he is taken on a wild night of carnal exercise by the beautiful sister of his enemy and her incredibly flexible female companion. In The Cataline Conspiracy, the second novel in the ancient Rome series, it is the nineteen year-old stepdaughter of his friend Catalina.

Alerted by the murders of several equites, money-lenders and hated by the populace, Decius suspects a link between the seemingly unconnected deaths and there is something more than somebody carrying out an extermination of a group of men to whom nearly everyone was indebted.

Against the wishes of his emotionally distant father, Decius investigates and uncovers a plot to overthrow the Republic, but it seems doomed to fail on the surface. The leaders are a group of men who do not have the organizations skills or the resources to pull off anything remotely successful.

Decius concludes that there are powerful and wealthy men behind the rebellion, who pull the strings and push the cash, but keep themselves an anonymous distance away to keep form being implicated with their fall guys. Decius manages to infiltrate the group but to show his dedication to the cause, he must kill his best friend, the Greek physician Asklepiodes. The good doctor agrees to conspire with Decius and fake his death, while remaining unflappable and keeping his wry wit, which makes him a loveable and endearing character.

As with The King’s Gambit, the mystery in The Cataline Conspiracy oftentimes takes a backseat to the events and daily lifestyle of Rome which form the basis for the story. Much of the time the basis is more prevalent than the story. Roberts includes a glossary to help the reader navigate the ancient Roman terms that lace every page. Still, one tends to get bogged down among the secondary and peripheral characters with similar names, but this isn’t Roberts’s fault. Blame the Roman who thought naming all his offspring and descendants the same name was a good idea.

There are still many references to the environment of southern Italy of that time that are not expounded upon in the book, leaving the reader more confused.

Overall, I enjoyed The Cataline Conspiracy more than The King’s Gambit and that’s as much Roberts’s writing improvement as my becoming more familiar with ancient Rome through Decius.

John Maddox Roberts also infuses more than a little humor into this second novel. The conversation and plotting that takes place between Decius and Asklepiodes when they discuss the Greek’s fake demise is very enjoyable as the doctor chides his friend to not grieve too much when he’s ‘gone’. The blurb on the back of the book made this sound more ominous than the scene actually was. And few authors can deliver a line like “They don’t make tyrants like Sulla anymore” with great comedic timing.

I feel that with The Cataline Conspiracy, Roberts has developed Decius a bit more, who realizes that he has a terrible weakness for beautiful and voluptuous women, but we also see him as a soldier. Although the climatic battle was a very short scene in the final pages of the book, we get to know this other side of Decius that has only been hinted at in these first two novels. It gives the reader a stronger bond with the flawed and vulnerable hero, but as a result, he becomes more human.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Wicked Gentlemen by Ginn Hale

My first impression after reading this book is there must be more of the adventures of Belimai Sykes and his lover Captain William Harper. Just inside the front cover, Hale includes two maps of the world of Wicked Gentlemen; one depicting the layout of Crowncross, the Holy Capitol; and Hopetown, also called Hell’s Below. Both are elaborate and descriptive with Hopetown having the most detail, but many of the features of the maps do not figure into the novel, which is actually two short stories, the second a sequel to the first. In fact, a significant portion of the sequel, Captain Harper and the Sixty-second Circle takes place beyond the maps.

With such attention to detail, one would expect Hale to include those points but are left with questions are other places of interests, called out on the maps. But that’s not to say Wicked Gentlemen is not enjoyable. I found it to be a lot of fun to read and loved the concepts. Belimai Sykes is a Prodigal, which is a descendant of ancient demons from long ago. Captain William Harper is an Inquisitor, a member of an organization that seems to be the love-child of Nazism and the Spanish Inquisition.

The first story, Mr. Sykes and the Firefly, opens with Captain Harper entreating Belimai’s help in finding a woman who has been kidnapped. It appears that Belimai is a bit of a detective and a hustler (where have I seen this before?). It is unclear why the Prodigal is approached for this assignment since his background is sketchy and references to other cases are vague.

Hale does a good job of incorporating the aspects of the fantasy world and its social interactions between the Prodigals and the Sons of Adams. Here again, one gets the feeling that Hale put more thought into the fantasy world than into the story.

The characters are fleshed out well enough. The heat between Harper and Sykes becomes apparent quickly, but almost too quickly. After a night of drinking, they fall into bed together quite easily. It’s not until the second story that we find out why the staunch, upright and militaristic Harper is so beguiled after only a few drinks by a man whose race is considered sub-human.

Captain Harper and the Sixty-second Circle opens with the Inquisitor heading to a family estate for vacation but dreading the experience. His trip is interrupted by the mysterious death of a wealthy and prominent citizen’s daughter. Harper smells the putrid stench of a cover-up but the powers-that-be immediately suspect the flight-capable Belimai Sykes. Through a furious thunderstorm, Harper manages to keep one step ahead of his fellow Inquisitors to rescue his Prodigal lover and whisk him away to the family estate.

The rest of the story is an exciting ride as Harper leaves Belimai in capable hands and returns to Crowncross to clear his name and bring the guilty party to justice. It’s a great read but the plot, lowly good guy brings down the almighty rich establishment, is so old isn’t practically petrified. The sci-fi/fantasy spin does give a refreshing approach to such an over-used concept, but the reek of decay lingers.

Mr. Sykes and the Firefly is told in First Person from Belimai’s point of view, but the Sixty-second Circle is Third Person from the Harper’s perspective. Hale returns to First Person in Circle’s epilogue with Belimai as the narrative. This switching back and forth is a little tedious and confusing.

This being said, I’d like to read more of the adventures of Captain Harper and Belimai Sykes. Despite the old we’ve-seen-that-before plots, Wicked Gentlemen is a fun and entertaining read.