11:pm. Monday, Feb. 21, 2011.
Ciudad del Este, Paraguay.
My itinerary in this three-week Paraguayan holiday is composed loosely of only a few stops:
- first Asunción, capital city and point-of-entry for most international arrivals;
- then two Peace Corp. volunteers’ off-the-track sites (who I networked with through Couchsurfing), to spend some quality time in the campo (country);
- The Iguazu Falls, which I decided to visit en-route to my final destination after my second Couchsurfer bailed and where I am now;
- and finally Encarnación, home of Paraguayan Carnivale, which will be my first of such festivals, about which I’m extremely excited, (but not exitado), as Paraguayan girls are super-hottt!
I’m on the frontera, or border, between Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina, in the city of Ciudad del Este. This place is notorious for its black-market commerce: you can buy anything, electronics drugs, women, whatever. I can’t help but draw a comparison to the famous opium trade route in Southeast Asia, or Golden Triangle formed by the points on the frontera between Thailand, Laos and China.
It’s pretty seedy here on the Paraguayan side, or so say the locals. Even as far away as Bolivia, I’ve been told that anything goes here, and that for South America, it’s one of the best places to buy stuff, especially electronics. It’s reputation also holds that it can be dangerous at night, so I suppose my 6pm arrival wasn’t the wisest planning.
Not that I’ve planned much of anything in Paraguay. For lack of any written planning material like guide books or maps, I’ve been winging it, taking suggestions and luck as they come. This time I arrived at the edge of the city, hopped-off at Km 7, and rode around till I found stuff. (I do this sometimes, entering the city on my own, to sample the sprawl beyond the center which I might otherwise never venture… or if I go direct I often take a bus to the outskirts, and make my way back.)
After an hour or so of friendly wandering – people really talk to you here, quite refreshing actually, like India! – I found the city center and it’s tall glass buildings, upmarket shopping malls, sexy billboards, and a seemingly endless open market. With business concluded for the day, I could only gauge its immensity by an army of broom-toting custodians making trash mountains from the day’s remains. It definitely felt really different, albeit a bit dodgy. Many friendly people shouted greetings, guessing my nationality (I always get French the most), showing general interest in my bike and (more likely) my dollar. In a town where there’s a price on everything though, I didn’t want to linger in the streets, nor was I sure I wanted to stay the night, as my aim here isn’t to shop, rather to visit the mighty Iguazu Falls, among the world’s most impressive natural wonders.
Before yesterday I wasn’t aware that you could only see the falls from Brazil or Argentina, and not Paraguay. I’m opting to visit Argentina, as they won’t make me pay to enter. (I’ve already paid over $400 so far in South American Visas, no más!)
Naturally, uninformed surprises abound, and some things I’ve learned the hard way. First snafu is that I bought a single-entry visa to Paraguay (1/2 price: $65), as I didn’t anticipate having to exit Paraguay (or even that I’d be here) on my short visit.
I asked a cop which way to the frontera, and he directed me straight… within minutes a was crossing the Friendship Bridge into Brazil! I didn’t intend to go to Brazil, and I couldn’t anyway without buying another ($300) visa, which is good for 10 years of multiple-entries, but which I already dished-out for 8 years ago (and lost along with its containing passport) and don’t need to re-purchase this permission again right Now.
I knew enough to not stamp-out of Paraguay, cruising briskly past the border control and across the bridge (what a rush!) After exploring my options in Brazil and turning back, I again slid by immigration, waving hello to the guard, smiling without stopping.
Once again in the market, I stopped to chat with some Brazilian guys working a banana cart. Within minutes they gifted me a bundle of the most delicious bananas (de oro) I’ve tasted since…last time I was in Brazil! (I finally understood why my Brazilian friends say US bananas suck, as my palate’s matured!) The guys were super cool, but warned that this town is indeed very dangerous. With directions to the hotels near the bus terminal (and a parting gift of ten more bananas), I was to pedal fast and not stop!
With my legs and adrenaline pumping, of course many people attempted to slow me down with conversation. One guy with an ice-cream-moto chatted alongside me for at least a kilometer… he was really friendly, and ignored honking buses wishing to overtake, even riding in the grass alongside the road to stick with me! Just curious I’m sure, but I was paranoid and kept pedaling. Eventually I found the terminal, circled by a field with two big brush fires billowing black clouds, and my eventual hotel. Minimal polling for cheap and best manifested a room for 70,000 Guaranis, by far the most expensive room I’ve paid for in South America: $15, and it had no A/C, too many mosquitos, and they wouldn’t share the WiFi key. I paid 30K for a great single with AC in Asunción! Damn frontera!
Wandering the neighborhood for food, however, I found delicious border-influenced Neopolitan empañadas, Brazilian Skol beer, my favorite Guaraná soft-drink, along with a couple acquaintances. Sharing terere (iced máte) with me, Oscar and Nana sang their love of ever-tranquílo Paraguay, continually pointing out the beauty of Guarani culture (every time a girl in hot-pants walked by!)
I myself had a very tranquílo evening, taking two showers and, instead of writing as planned, watching Cable TV! Lol, it was kind of nice. Beyond the typical variety shows featuring Latinas in spandex and a cross-dressing host, I found a surprising number of Japanese, Indian and Arabic programming. Of course I ended-up watching British shows, including the Mighty Boosh and a feature on Australian genre-flicks of the 70’s (making a long list of must-sees!) Which was actually perfect, as I’m starting to get psyched for Oz… this fall is not so far away!!
This morning I packed-up and set out for the other border. As I made my way about 7 km south of the city to the Argentinian crossing, it seemed everyone was literally cheering me on with positive words, smiles and thumbs-up. (It was a bit hilly.) I didn’t experience this so much in Argentina before, so I’ll attribute this newfound warmth (and really pretty girls – and not in that Mestizo, or Euro-mixed, way!) to the Brazilian influence.
Geez this is long. I arrived at the ferry to Argentina, but stupidly I followed the 12-year old ticket-boy’s directive to speak to the Paraguayan border-control guy first. Long story short, since I have a single-entry visa, upon returning I might have to pay another 179,000 Guarani ($40). But to help me out, and for the small fee of only 1/2 that, he would do me the unauthorized courtesy of not stamping me out. (Such a scam!) I finally agreed to give him 50,000, he told me not to say anything of this to anyone, and off I went to Argentina, un-stamped. I just hope I don’t have to pay the full amount on my way back. He actually suggested, though, that when I get back and I’m riding off the ferry, just don’t stop. Ha ha! True words of wisdom in these parts.
Otherwise, immigration into Argentina was a breeze, which is ironic to me, as this is a dodgy trade-zone, and nobody even attempted to search my fully-loaded bike for contraband. Coming-into Paraguay on the other side, from Bolivia, we were searched hard-core. It took almost two hours, and they looked everywhere. I guess it’s because so much cocaine comes out of Bolivia… but here, no worries!
Argentina is familiar. The little tourist town of Puerto Iguazu feels much like I remember the rest of Argentina to be. I even managed to find the máte-drinking, jewelry-making hippies, at a word-of-mouth, tent-and-weed-friendly, eco-home of natural and recycled-building, hammocks in trees, and even a rain-water swimming pool. And only $3 yay! I was happy to find hand-drawn posters for the Argentinian Encuentro Arco-Iris (Rainbow Gathering) adorning the trees here too… I have a feeling I’ll run into many of these people again very soon.
I’m excited to go hiking in the falls tomorrow. But not excited to sneak back into Paraguay next day. But very excited for Carnival. At least it all guarantees more adventure to come!