Tuesday, September 03, 2002

Pondering Paraguay

The saga continues with...
Paraguayan Adventures:

From Puerto Iguazu's 'Three Corners', you can see past the Rio Parana and the Rio Iguazu into both Brazil and Paraguay. To get to Paraguay, we had to enter its border town of Ciudad del Este. We took a bus from Argentina, over a bridge into Brazil, then over another bridge into Paraguay. Customs....well, little did we know that as of August 1st, U.S. citizens no longer have free entry into Paraguay. The customs officials, who didn't speak a word of english, were all too happy to point out a dated newspaper clipping which states these new visa requirements. "You'll have to return to Foz, Brazil to get a visa, processing takes 50 hours, and today is Saturday." We stayed calm, and continued to play sorry and clueless (which we were) about this sudden visa change. Eventually, we were able to get an 8-day transit visa at the border, for $30US a person. I have no idea if we were swindled or if the whole situation was legitimate, but I was thankful not to have to alter our plans, and to get a 'legal' entry. Ciudad del Este is Tijuana and Bangkok rolled into one. It is known as a corrupt city of drugs and goods smuggling, where you can buy every type of fake electronic product, with names like Suny and Panasuonic. I can't count on two hands all the times that people tried to sell us cheap cologne or electric razors while we waited for a bus. I guess it was obvious to more than me that Dan needed a shave. As a 'transit' city, we didn't spend long loitering before we were back on a long bus headed for Encarnacion. Our 5 hour drive was a scenic, pastoral journey through gently undulating, grassy farmland. The terrain was dotted with tall, sky-spearing palm trees and arbols of budding hot pink flowers.(Doesn't she paint a pretty little picture...undulating arbols, This is why I'm on the Camera. dg) Unlike Argentina and Uruguay, which have the majority of their population compressed into capital cities like Buenos Aires and Montevideo, Paraguay is a more rural country. Asuncion has about 1 million inhabitants, 20% of the countries population. The average Paraguayan lives in small pueblos and works in the agricultural industry.

Encarnacion, by the way, is less than an hour away from Posadas in Argentina. We had planned on crossing the border and visiting this city when we were in Posadas, but that happened to be the day that the heavens burst forth. Coming back to this spot lengthened our overland journey a bit, but it is one of the noted cities to visit in this country, because of its proximity to more Jesuit ruins! Dan and I definitely get templed, and churched out, but we went to Trinidad (the closest Paraguayan mission), because its' style and terrain were supposed to be different than San Ignacio Mini. The Trinidad mission was situated on a high grassy plateau, while the San Ignacio mission was in a lush jungle. We ended up being the only people visiting the sight, and upon closer inspection were surprised by how many ornate details we could find, including standing monk-like sculptures, and angel reliefs.

Day 3 in Paraguay... I think that something about this country fits the South American stereotype of being hectic, a little gritty and poor, more so than the countries we have visited thus far. On our way to Asunción, vendors hop on and off the bus trying to sell their wares - everything from chipas (bread donuts of manioc flour or cornmeal, with eggs and cheese) and piña or guarani soda, to pens you can hang around your neck, glitter stickers, and pro-Olimpia soccer knick-knacks.

Asuncion, the great Paraguayan capital and a funky place to see! 3 full days, and what sights - the amber sunsets, resting at the cultural center with a beautiful view of the white Palacio de Gobierno, stumbling over crumbling sidewalks, news kiosks full of futból and porno mags, brand new Mercedes getting sideswiped by rickety bus and crazy driver, soldiers on corners with rifles as big as small children, hearing the Guarani tongue- what????, parking at a shopping center and observing that every other car is a Mercedes, BMW, or SUV, watching huge frogs hop across the street in the rain, prostitutes in doorways backlit by red or neon blacklight, street protests of honking cars fighting automobile taxation, eating surubi (river catfish) in a fine dining establishment, and drinking tereré in the plaza with locals.

Speaking of Tereré...
Dan's mate cup started to grow mold, so we're on the hunt for a new vessel. In Paraguay, mate is commonly drunk out of a polished bull's horn or hoof (that's right!). Because of the heat, hot mate just won't do, and here they drink their own ice-chilled version, called tereré, which is mixed with medicinal herbs - yuyos. In Asuncion, Dan and I took a break from the scorchin' heat, sat ourselves down in a shady plaza, and did what the locals do. It is quite a ritual, and one that might frighten our parents from a hygenic standpoint. First, we picked (or rather had a stranger in-the-know pick) a series of bundled herbs (including mint), which were then pounded into a pulp with a mortar and pestle. These herbs (roots, dirt, and all), were then put into a pitcher of water drawn from a grimy bucket, along with a chunk of ice, chiseled from a large block. Then, we were handed one plastic cup full of dry mate, and a bombilla (a straw that many, many people have sucked on). The next step is to pour the liquid from the pitcher into the cup, sip until empty, then repeat, until you have finished drinking the entire jug. Let me tell you, it was fantastic! Much better than a weak glass of iced tea, and so much more refreshing than hot, bitter mate. The metal bombilla feels pleasantly cool on your lips, and the herbs with mate taste delicious. Dan and I were smiling the whole time, and perhaps getting a little buzzed?

Here, we were lucky to make a friend. Dan's cousin, Tami, works in the States with a Paraguayan woman, Gloria, who gave us her brother, Julio's number, in Asuncion. We spent two evenings with Julio, eating and drinking, and being taken on a road tour of the ultra-chic surrounding neighborhoods. He had a genuine desire to share the beauty of his city with us, and show us some Paraguayan hospitality. What I especially thank him for, is his immense patience. Since he didn't speak any english, Dan and I were hard pushed to keep up our end of the conversation. We spent both evenings brutalizing the spanish language, and trying to have as indepth conversations as our limited vocabulary would permit. I can't believe we did it! Those spanish classes have definitely paid off.

Our third day in Asuncion, and we were prisoners of our hotel! As our luck would have it, we were here on the one day out of every ten years, that the census counts the Paraguayan population. Everyone must stay indoors until 6PM. We did plan in advance, and moved from our $8 a night, shabby room to a 4 star hotel with cable t.v., pool, restaurant and free internet. On the 14th floor, we had an excellent view of the eerily empty downtown streets. At the very least, we made good use of our forced relaxation!

Final Note:
The day we left Paraguay, the headlines read: "Paraguay - El tercer pais mas corrupto del mundo". Apparently, a Berlin-based organization had ranked Paraguay as the 3rd most corrupt country in the world.

HA, HA!!! Customs proved them right! Not that we were really surprised, but it was a bummer to have our 'transit' visa questioned. If we wanted our passports back, and another exit stamp, we'd have to cough up some more money. After laying down another $20 a piece we were free to leave.

Adios to Paraguay, a fascinating country that was worth our $50 - we don't regret a thing.

September 3, 2002
Dan and I are back in Argentina; Cordoba to be precise. On the way here, we spent two days in Rosario, the 3rd largest city in Argentina. We were hoping to visit our friend Micah, from Spanish class, but he either doesn't read his email or was hiding from us. We were a little lazy about exploring this Parana river town, and preferred to watch movies, catching up on Unfaithful and Signs. We also had the humorous experience of wining and dining to a live music cover-band at La Rosario. They entertained us with an eclectic mix of Billy Joel, Gypsy Kings, CCR, blues, Argentine rock and love ballads.

More tales to come...please check out our photo site:) http://www.pbase.com/dgsc/para

We love and miss you all,
Sarah and Dan


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