1 Mar 2011, 9:28 PM
Relatively, Paraguay is not so well-known to the world outside, evident in its lack of tourist infrastructure and travelers. Besides the very few gringos I encountered during the Carnavale in Encarnación – I met and partied with all eight of them) – to my knowledge I was a lone tourist in every town.
Admittedly, Paraguay is small, and lacks any significant blockbuster attractions like its neighbors can all lay claim to. Even Iguazú Falls, which was hands-down the most impressive sight I saw during my jaunt here, I had to leave the country to experience (from the opposite shore.)
My entry into Paraguay from Bolivia was memorable, but not in the good way, starting with the bus ride. First off, when I booked the trip from the nearest Bolivian city, it was a 22-hour journey (that actually took 28), and my choices in transport were dismal, even by Bolivian standards, and cost six-times the fare (per hour) as compared with Bolivia’s nice, double-decker, air-conditioned, sleeper-class overnight coaches. Less than two hours into the journey, we already broke down with engine problems – which is why we traveled with a mechanic – but it hardly put me at ease. (See my barrage of tweets from Feb. 15 for the play-by-play.) Supposedly, nice buses don’t do the international trip from Bolivia. (wth?!)
Other highlights of the bus trip include:
- the Chaco, or flat, bushy desert, monotonously unchanging for the whole time
- the “all-included food and drink”, (to justify the price?): 3 identical plastic-wrapped fried chicken and white rice dishes; 1 packet of 20-cent cookies; and 2 small bottles of generic orange cola. No water. No napkins (just chicken-greased curtains.)
- No A/C – it might as well have been called the fan – and No Opening the windows.
- No rest-stops to re-up on supplies, stretch legs, buy water, or to use a real bathroom.
- Immigration: taking Everything off the bus to be searched and questioned (for 2 hours), re-assembling and de-assembling my bike; and being told Not to come back to Bolivia (although I’m so allowed to for 50 more days this year, according to my understanding of the $140 Visa.)
- No movie. No reclining semi-cama seats. No ironic loud music. No views. No fun. Not even a screaming baby. Extended-limbo; Purgatory.
- The dirt road into Paraguay, a pot-holed dust-bowl. I came to understand why our only transport option was a shrieking, over-heating, convulsing bucket of bolts: anything better was too good for this road.
[ Picture, or lack-of: the Chaco. I didn’t even take a picture. ]
Upon arriving in the capital of Asunción at half-past midnight, I rode my bike around. No area map was to be found in the terminal, and no tourists to peek at their guidebooks, none even on my bus. But this part I didn’t mind, as splashdown-and-explore is actually really fun, in this case relief-fun, cruising free, fully-loaded, on a warm summer night, target of drunken-invitations, asking around in the streets where to find a hotel (and being led, for a tip, by s helpful street-kid hustling to make a buck.) 5km away, in the city center, I found a great spot, the cheapest in town, which rented by the hour. With private bathroom, working air-con, and cable TV, albeit at twice the price of any I stayed-at in Bolivia, I slept blissfully.
In the morning, I rode around in a stifling heat, checking out the government buildings, getting a Paraguayan SIM card (or chip for you Latinos), emailing couchsurfers, and happening upon many parts of town (sans map) in my quest to get back to the bus terminal. When I say it was hot, I felt like some sort of sexy athlete, absolutely drenched, dripping with sweat, pumping away at unfamiliar high-speeds on the smooth tarmac roads (never in Bolivia!), meeting incredulous stares (and thumbs-up) from all the terere-sipping locals. (Socially drinking cold máte is what everyone does here in-lieu of working.)
Aesthetically, I really like the look here. What draws my eye especially are the dilapidated, paint-peeling from concrete walls, quasi-Miami-deco architecture, palm tree-lined boulevards, and juxtaposition of brightest-green foliage on ubiquitous dusty, red-dirt roads, and black-tinted, late-generation Mercedes-Benzes. It’s not a rich country, but there’s some money floating around.
But it’s very chilled-out, and in an almost effortless way, Paraguay is chic. Maybe what I’m seeing is just a modernism that Bolivia didn’t possess, in materials and international influence specifically – it’s the next step up. And dang, so are the women. It’s almost unfair to compare though, because while Paraguayans have certainly embraced today’s Latino-American culture of sexy, Bolivia is in a league of its own so to speak.
I digress… What made Bolivia so impressively unique is it’s indigenous stronghold, where a majority of its people still live like they have for hundreds of years, in miraculous oblivion to the progress of post-Colombian history. And as if I’ve been in another world for the last three months, it’s supermundane to come out of it and see South America as I know it again, which is sexy, variably developed, a chip off the old European block, American.
My two couchsurfing contacts both happened to be Peace-Corp. volunteers, living in little-known villages far from the big smoke. I couldn’t be more pleased, as without guidebook, my only destinations so far were two cities that host Carnavale, and we all know I need some country to know a country.
In the evening I hopped a three-hour bus towards Coronel Oviedo, in the belly-button of the country, half-way to the Brazilian frontera, to rendezvous with my host Angelique, who had another couchsurfer from Sweden arriving that same night.
En route, a woman boarded to bus shouldering a basket full of fresh, warm, bagel-looking bread. Made of mandioca (yuca) flour, salt, some cheese baked-in, and a bit of anise, chipa was to become one of my favorite snacks. She rode the bus for a few kilometers, long enough to sell one to nearly every passenger for $.40 apiece, then hopped-off. Like humintas (tamales) were to me in Bolivia, chipa has become a tradition that I’ve come to savor daily, which appear on buses and street-corners nationwide, every afternoon following Siesta.
Welcomed in C. Olviedo with two friendly, English-language greetings, I was in a very new element. For the next few days, I got my first taste of the Peace Corps., which in my estimation is basically: really nice people, working more or less alone but with the community, using their expertise and passions to teach, improve, and contribute with their foreign but integral perspective.
This is quite enough for now, so I’ll write more about what I learned in Olviedo in Part 2: No olvido!, (meaning, Don’t forget!) I tend to do that…not come back to a topic, with much to elaborate on.
See you soon!