Paraguide – Part 1

1 Mar 2011, 9:28 PM
Encarnación, Paraguay

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.

tv remote (wired to my night stand)

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!

[big thumbs-up!]

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Not Safe For Camera

2 March 2011 6:33 PM
Encarnación, Paraguay

EnCarnavale, as I’ve been calling it, has been a swirl of crazy since I got here. The energy is so animated, and for a tiny town, they sure love to party. When in Rome…

The other night I nearly killed my camera again. I was acting the fool. Friday, Carnival night #1, I cooked up some veggie soup and drank some wine. Then met up with a bunch of couchsurfers from here, Spain and England, finished my box of wine. Went to meet-up with another bunch of grapevine gringos at a hostel, drank a bunch more. (Things get fuzzy about now.) We go to Carnival, I’m wearing my cool new white Slash t-shirt, get f!n messy, sprayed with foamy stuff all nite, covered in glitter, don’t remember much after a little while there.

Next morning, or rather 2PM the next day, back at my apartment, I wake up naked and bit by bugs, looking at my stuff strewn all about the room – where’d that 3/4 of a pizza come from? My white t-shirt is purple. And my backpack, also purple. Look inside, a f!n bottle wine, half empty, no cork! And I pull out my camera, its case drenched in wine. Wtf?! Where I got the wine I don’t know, why the heck I put it in my backpack, open, spooning with my camera, a real lapse of good judgement. But it still works. A little wine in the lcd, but I’m grateful that’s all.

My cultural appreciation of the night before’s events is uncertain, although I saw a lot of feathers and butts. So I set out to a village 30km away to the Jesuit ruins of Trinidad for some history. Buying my ticket, I hear from behind: “New York!” Had they not called me out, I honestly don’t think I would have recognized them as the very same gringos with whom I spent the night before!

Mighty impressive, I didn’t even regret skipping the circuit of missions near Santa Cruz, as these are reportedly exquisite examples of the Jesuits’ work in South America. Unlike some other sites I’ve seen which required much imagination, this Unesco-declared World Heritage Site was finely preserved, with much to see and explore, albeit it very-restored.

Riding back on the bus, seemingly all of Paraguay (including our bus driver) was watching the fútbol match between Asunción’s two big teams. As we arrived back in EnCarnival, for the last two kilometers actually, the sportscaster was screaming Goooooooooooooooool! and the game was ostensibly over. I’ve never actually been in a riot before, but this was how I’d imagine it to be. People lost their minds! Spontaneously, a city-wide parade of horn-honking, flag and jersey-waving, ghetto-blasting, chanting, singing, or screaming fans on four wheels took to the streets. After an hour of uprising flooding the streets to critical mass, I wondered, already covered in foam, how many cars were in Encarnacion, and how this dancing in the intersections would spill into tonight’s Carnival.

The funny thing is that, while the nation is equally divided in their fanfare between the two capital city teams who played tonight, the resulting uprising would be identical regardless of the outcome. Just imagine, country-wide… Paraguay simply loves to party! You can’t bottle this enthusiasm!

My crew was quite fun, and so we decided to stick together for yet another night of Carnival. And so ensued a second feast of drinking games, boobs, butts, feathers, foam, glitter, dancing, clubs, and drinking máte with the sunrise. This time, however, I didn’t lose my head, I remember it all, and my camera slept safely at home.

Next day I went out on a bike ride, to clear my head, and collect some info for my onward voyage to Argentina. Little did I know that warfare raged in the streets! As I rolled-out of my bright green gate, water balloons rained down from rooftops and fire escapes everywhere. Back inside I dashed to ditch my camera and zip-lock my phone.

Cruising out to the main drag, I encountered a boulevard of teens armed to the teeth with colorful globes. Quickly I retreated down a side street, with a lone goal of arriving at the bus station with some shred of dignity left in my brave-heart bosom. To the delight of half of Encarnación, I was a moving target, and luckily, I was thrilled to engage in the defensive. On every street corner, mischievous gangs toted buckets of ammo, and like rose petals being strewn before me, watery explosions paved my way through town.

Vigilant and quick on my green machine of freedom, I dodged black-tinted vans screeching around corners, opening-fire on many a poor wretch, who sometimes looked as if to burst out in tears. How exhilarating to contend with those who took the game way too seriously, and were unleashing their fury of adolescence upon those they could dominate. Unfortunately for many wet targets, they lacked the same means of escape that I had. In nearly two hours of this amusement, I managed to come out dry, though I couldn’t rest my eagle-eye or Rambo reflexes until after nightfall.

My wheels took me to the national border, where I learned that, contrary to my intentions, I couldn’t bike over the bridge to Posadas in Argentina. This frontera was wild too, but much different than my last time. As I approached the rotunda Sagrada Corazón de Jesuscristo (Sacred heart of Jesus), a clown car full of girls rode alongside me, blowing kisses and exerting a collective prowess of persuasion.

The sun plunged into the river, and in my eyes this industrial-commercial frontier was on fire, completely deserted save for Sunday evening security guards, but ever more-so mine for the taking. Border zones can be dodgy, but with only my bike and iPhone to lose (as you couldn’t steal my triumphant street-war dignity), I went exploring, snapping sunset photos till the cows came home. I didn’t fix my faulty cyclo-computer until later that evening, but I was riding so fast on that emblazoned tarmac that I almost bounced myself off on multiple occasions.

It was the last night of Carnival, and I debated going, but instead spent the night-in, till about 1:30am when I decided to stroll down to the thumping river-front boulevard, which I could hear all night anyway, being only five blocks away.

Still going strong, I almost paid the $5 to enter again, but decided to put boobs and butts behind me. Strolling back to my free wifi spot on a bench in a flowery intersection, I realized, with sober eye, that you need not be in the grand stands to be in the action. While I’ve sat here each day, exercising my thumbs without fear, on this particular evening I had to watch my back. For 2:30AM on a Sunday night in a tiny town, there was a lot of traffic, seemingly all of it full of shouting passengers, and drivers saluting me with beer, or pausing to drop the bottle out the door. One truck kept looping back to spray me with foam, and motorbikes with helmet-less drivers were cutting corners (on the sidewalk). I was too wary of water balloons to comfortably wield my iPhone anyway, so I soon retired.

Funny thing is, I came out around 11PM on the following night to call my Mom (-2hrs) and it was the same scene, only it was Monday night, and Carnival was over! She urged me to get out of the intersection…

I worry about you!

Fronterror – part 2

Iguazú Falls was incredible, mighty, beautiful! I don’t usually write about run-of the mill tourist landmarks, so I won’t, but I had a blast.

Quick Stats: the Grand Canyon of waterfalls, 23km (14mi) of 275 falls, some falling 70m (229ft), in lush tropical jungle. Species: 200 trees, 448 birds, 71 mammals, 36 reptiles, 20 amphibians, 250 butterflies.

The moment in which I peered into the largest fall from above was truly humbling, and so dramatic with pouring rain and mist…what a rush. A 20-minute walk out on an elevated path takes you to the middle of mighty Río Iguazú, where you can look down into the furious horseshoe named Garganta del Diablo (Devil Throat), which I suppose in fair weather is photogenic, but in this drenched moment I didn’t dare draw my camera from its waterproof bag. Que lástima. Without a doubt however, the memory will instead be etched into my little soul.

Other highlights of my couple weeks in Paraguay include a stay for a few days in the campo with some Peace Corp volunteers, tending to the mandioca (yuca) plants and biking around on muddy backroads, swimming with cows, and putting a sick dog out of its misery. I didn’t do the actual deed but I heard it, the bludgeoning sound like chopping wood, which was so sad.

surfing campo style w Kristin, turtle and Jacob
Patrick & I surfed couch w Angelic, "Goat" & puppies in C. Olviedo

Next morning after Iguazú I reluctantly broke down camp. With the thrill behind me, weak body (no dinner or breakfast), un-caffeinated brain – in no mood to charm authorities! – it was time to face the reality of immigration. Feeling quite ill*, I approached the frontera again.

(*For some reason, I can’t find veggie food lately, and consequently I’ve been eating very little. More accurately, I’m tired of the ovo-lacto diet, and my body is telling me via reduced appetite that it’s grossed-out with eating cheese, eggs and bread all the time; all non-meat options always have at least one of these things. So, having fallen into lazy habits, I’ve whittled my ready-to-eat options down to fruit and biscuits, and I’m feeling quite shit about it. Finally recognizing this as a transformation, I’m cooking again :)

feeling big-time sluggish

Drenched again in the morning showers, I arrived at the ferry, went straight to immigration to check-out of Argentina, but was directed to purchase my passage first. (No consistency!) Mid-interaction, I almost decided to skip the immigration part (as I should have last time), but the officer came out of his box to announce his post with importance: “Immigración!” He checked my ticket, and stamped me out.

I spent a nervous hour waiting for the next ferry, too crappy-feeling to make myself a luke-cold Nescafe, imagining my impending maneuver over and over in my head. When it arrived, they washed the boat thoroughly, making red muddy falls over its edges until we boarded. Seeing that I needed to fix myself, I bought some peaches from a lady onboard, and finally made some conversation with a kid in an arm-sling until we got to the other side.

As the cars filed out, and I rode on one side of them, so I could maybe use them to block me, but the queue stopped at immigration. I hid, until an officer waved to me from between cars, as if to say come out this way. I took this to mean PEDDLE, so I continued, on my side of the cars, until I popped-out in front of the stopped line of cars, and with purpose, as if this was exactly what I was supposed to do, I didn’t look back.

It was a massive hill leading down to the dock, and up it I peddled quickly in my granny-gear, making an absurd getaway at 3mph, for at least a kilometer and a half, dripping sweat in the intense humidity, not stopping until I was up safely on the main road. Adrenaline pumping, I took off my shirt, and continued on back into the Ciudad del Este, where anything goes.

Smiling again, I was back in Paraguay, and Paraguay smiled back. I felt a little exposed, as I don’t usually ride without my shirt, but in hot humid Paraguay shirtless is the fashion for men, and the breeze of emancipation on my wet skin felt great. Even more de la moda (fashionable) is, if you’ve got a big gut, to just roll the shirt up over the gut. Damn sexy. Maybe I was feeling a bit self-conscious though, because with each terere-sipping family or group of kids in school-uniform I passed, I received huge smiles, lots of thumbs-up, and much laughter. Just because I’m a dreadlocked shirtless gringo on a green bike with fluorescent yellow panniers? LOL.