We've spent some of this winter-that-won't-end proofreading and polishing up the eventual book Common Sense and Whiskey. As we take the edit pen to the various chapters, we thought we'd post them here. Last week's entry: Climbing Mt. Kinabalu. Today, enjoy a longish chapter about a drive across Paraguay.
The farthest back water washes to a national capital must be Asuncion, Paraguay. It’s as if its residents didn’t ask for the honor, but the capital had to be somewhere and so they amiably accommodated.
Maybe parts of Africa are less vital. Think Ouagadougou, maybe, or Bangui. Even somnambulent Vientiane, which is in Laos, shows more vitality than here, smack in the middle of South America.
They’d rolled up the streets by the time we installed ourselves in the Sabe Hotel. The front desk spoke not so much as “hello,” no English. Here in the national capital.
The TV wouldn’t work until tomorrow because it was New Years Day and they couldn’t get anybody out to fix it, but it was a nice enough place. Except a picture hung partly over the window in the hallway.
I was out early, through the business district and down to the Paraguay River. It’s not very big, downtown Asuncion, and it wasn’t very busy.
The main Plaza de los Heroes, down a few blocks. Asuncion has a building modeled after the Pantheon. Birds were loud and it was hot hot hot by 8:45.
Sales ladies’ tables along Avenue Palma offered up the usual languid market fare: watches and underwear and (allegedly) Nike clothes and plastic toys.
Down at the river, General Fransisco Solana Lopez’s white-washed mansion, started in 1860, stood shuttered. Beyond it, children pumped water at a clutter of squatter shacks. A sand spit stretched out to two rusting shipwrecks, resting just on the edge of the water. Here in the national capital.
The Girl from Ipanema and her ilk played from speakers in the stone-floored breakfast room at the Triple Borders, where Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay meet, a place that keenly interested the U.S. after September 11, because it was convinced terrorists operated, or at least laundered money there.
As Kelly Hearn told the story in the Christian Science Monitor in 2005, a motorcycle taxi driver in Cuidad del Este shouted “from inside his helmet: ‘They want to control all this. They think terrorists are here.’
‘They’ means the US military.”
Hearn wrote, “Before and immediately after 9/11, US officials suspected that Al Qaeda was active in the so-called Triple Border area where Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil meet. Those fears have dwindled to allegations that Arab businessmen in Ciudad del Este use profits from pirated goods to fund Middle East terrorist groups. The Brazilian government has estimated that $6 billion of illegal funds are wired out of Ciudad del Este annually.”
In Argentina, at Iguazu Falls, it was so bloody hot every day, how could you smuggle? We just watched the wildlife. We only ever saw a fraction, but there were a ton: Escorpiones and tablespoon sized beetles called the coleopterous – they must be an inch high. Scary, but turn ‘em over and they just wiggle.
There are aranas, tarantulas, and eighty billion mosquitoes. Monkeys and sloths and the tamandua live in trees - the tamandua eating honey. The carpincho, I think it’s not sure if it’s a beaver or an anteater. And the lobo gargantilla doesn’t know if it’s a beaver or an eel, with fat swimmers’ feet and an ugly tube of a body, four feet long with its tail.
The tiny deerlike corzuela enana has no chance against a six foot alligator called nombre vulgar. There’s the tegu lizard – Mirja saw one - and porcupines, little cats and orange-billed toucans and toucans both verde and amarillo. The most famous big cats, pumas and yaguaretes, are nowhere to be found. Must be way back in the jungle. There’s a little museum where a yaguarete is chomping down on a tapir.
Armadillos are the most unfortunate - everybody eats them - even big lizards. On the other hand, anteaters must taste awful. Nobody eats them but the big cats. And there’s tree-sized bamboo thick as the top of your arm all over the place.
A man named Walter drove us over to the Brazilian side of the falls across the River Parana. On the strength of Walter vouching for us that we’d be back in Argentina today, that didn’t require a border stop.
But we were going on through Brazil for Paraguay. Walter said we’d need a visa and tomorrow was a holiday, consulate was closed, so we went to the Brazilian consulate in Argentina right then. It took just twenty minutes, even typing on a manual typewriter, because no one was there but us. That amazed Walter. He said it usually takes at least an hour.
Walter Foerster’s folks moved here as kids just about the time their parents would have been fleeing the wake of the war. That was pretty common in Chile, Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. The president of Paraguay for thirty years was the son of an immigrant brewer, a man named Alfredo Stroessner.
In the Iguacu National Park, in Brazil, black-fringed yellow butterflies threw themselves by the thousands at Walter’s Peugeot. Nandus, cousin to the Patagonian Guanaco, stood in a preserve. Didn’t know they grew ‘em up here.
Anteaters pilfered tourist’s ice cream cones along a walkway skirting the hammering torrents of Iguazu Falls. It was good not to speak the language.
The kids whined, “Papa I’ve got to pee” and the adults were sniping like the wife of Kurt down in Patagonia, but if you couldn’t understand them, you could pretend they were comparing impressions of the aesthetics of such a volume of moving water.
That day we checked the bus schedules to Paraguay. Foz de Iguacu, Brazil is a city of 300,000, with cold orange drink hawkers at every light, and these lights are cool, too, not just one red and one green, but a whole scheme-full of reds and greens, five apiece in columns. When the color changes the top one is lit, and the less time left, the lower the light slides toward the bottom until the color changes again.
Foz boasts a couple of mid-rise buildings, the Itabon sushi bar, billboards for cell phones advertising “100 minutas gratis,” and an Avenue Schimmelpfing. There were residential towers that had never been finished, and the TV Cataratas tower stood back from the road, inside Agriculture Ministry property.
There were the Oklahoma Texaco and the Antarctica Restaurant, and across the street, Bar Mania. There’s a thing for Mona Lisa around here - the Mona Lisa Hotel in Foz, and signs advertising duty free shopping at Mona Lisa shopping center across the border in Paraguay.
The bus schedule didn’t suit us: three times a day, at 00:05, 7:00 and 18:05. The 18:05 wasn’t A/C, and it would put us at the bus station in Asuncion after midnight with hotel reservations at a hotel that (we didn’t know yet) didn’t exist.
Walter told me how much most people paid for a private car to Asuncion while we stood there in the bus station, and when I said okay, he drove us back to Argentina and he was quiet and stroked his chin and I thought he might want to make that money for himself. And sure enough he did.
Walter and his Peugeot were ready at 1:30 and whisked us out of Iguazu, stopped for border stamps at Argentina and Brazil and motored straight on to Cuidad del Este, Paraguay’s second city.
Walter warned that we might lose our film if we took pictures of the border, but eating chicken interested the border police much more than we did. There was an advantage to traveling on the New Years Day holiday. We were the only people trying to get in and Walter was ecstatic, because it can take an hour or two there, but this only took about three minutes.
Disappointing, predictable Cuidad del Este, Paraguay’s East City, squatted in the sun, poor and dusty and ramshackle, low buildings crumbling in lumps along the highway, traffic lights out and money changers in leather money belts glowering on the side of the road. Walter stopped, didn’t like the rate, then did a deal at the Esso for fifty Argentina pesos worth of Guarani. And we were off for Asuncion.
Walter was a big man. He had to open the Peugeot’s door and stick his leg out to get the money in his pocket. I thought it was unlikely he could spend that unless it was for gas.
In Cuidad del Este you long to be out in the country again. A John Deere heavy equipment store, red dirt, no landscape and litter. You’d think there was a competition to see how foul they could make the roadside. Men with guns sat on stools. On the other side of town they’d torn up the road and didn’t appear to have plans to fix it.
The caballeros barracks was the nicest building in Cuidad del Este. Mirja imagined that if you were a young man living in the dirt, it’d make you want to join.
It was as humid as it gets, just sopping drippy. We and others double-passed some of the slower cars on the two lane road which, if nothing else superlative can be said, was in tolerably good shape all the way to Asuncion. Good enough to speed.
Somewhere a road wandered off to the left. A sign with an arrow read “Novotel 247K.”
New Year picnics had the rural population of eastern Paraguay out in their front yards just like they might anywhere in the rural U.S. south – guys in their undershirts, everybody in flip flops. They sat in twos and fives in lawn chairs under trees.
To move was to sweat, but still some played the odd volleyball game. A funeral procession moved slowly alongside the road on foot, a cluster of men carrying a simple wooden coffin on their shoulders.
Here was a girl with a bag on her head as big as she was, there was a stickball game. Red dirt and dust everywhere, and people at every water hole. Tethered cattle. Roosters. Hippodromos. And Gomerias (tire repair shops).
There were so many Gomerias that I got cross at seeing them. I mean, really, every kilometer or so for five hours, a tire out at the road painted with the word “Gomeria.” You either don’t need anything to set up a Gomeria or maybe there was a government subsidy if you did. That’s it, the government must pay people to own Gomerias so they can be in the record book as “Proud Paraguay - home of the world’s most Gomerias.”
Paraguayans don’t honk their horns. Well, okay, there’s not much traffic, but that doesn’t stop the rest of the third world’s drivers. Here in Paraguay, it’s quiet.
Out in the country we’d occasionally roll past carts with chest-high wagon wheels, and pigs, graineries, geese and people in the open backs of trucks. Lots of the old original Volkswagen beetles. There weren’t too many potholes and I was surprised.
Roofs were terra cotta or tin, wells built of brick. Grafitti: “Ricardo y Fatty C.” A car sped by us with the license plate: “Georgia Bulldogs.”
Colinas (hills) sprang up two hundred kilometers out of Asuncion. A horse wandered too close to the road. The highway stretched ten kilometers ahead, flat and straight, and cumulus appeared on the horizon. The first clouds of the day.
Towns now, not dirty outposts like Cuidad del Este, but proper little villages with centers and trees. 86 K from Asuncion, one town was open for business, stores, shops, kids on motorbikes and police on patrol. They put three-cornered stools – like in Rangoon - out by the roadside. White cloth on top kept chipas, cheese buns, warm.
Nearer Asuncion wealth was more manifest, cattle and sheep, and farms well tended with well-maintained roads. For awhile there was a passing lane.
It remained unrelentingly hot, with grassy-topped palms and wild cactus. Vendors sold bananas or garlic. Toward the big city, you could buy baseball caps and underwear by the roadside, and one sign advertised “Sex Toys.” Signs supplied by advertisers like Bremen beer lit a few shops, and always there were Gomerias.
Colinas again. 48 kilometers out the highway divided and the river Paraguay came into view. You could sail to the Atlantic from here, the Paraguay River to the Parana to the Plata (I guess you’d have to put out and walk around Iguazu), so that you’d finally sail into the ocean between Buenos Aires and Montevideo.
Two names I enjoyed: The Juan O’Leary bus line, and in the town of Loranzo, the clinic of Dr. Jose Rosenbaum.
The race was on to get to town before dark. I started out thinking that was a lock but Walter was ever the courteous driver, even timid, after a lifetime of driving in the small towns around Iguazu, and as the tempo picked up toward Asuncion, he hung back. And there was the little matter of him not knowing his way. We cruised cheesy neighborhoods on the outskirts, Walter showing manly reluctance to ask directions.
After he’d asked once, though, he’d stop every four minutes to ask again. I don’t know how he handled his Spanish conversations, but when he talked with us, Walter would typically start in his best stab at English and invariably end in Spanish, mumbling.
He was a perfectly nice fellow, maybe a little small-town slack-jawed, and it was a pleasure having him drive us into Paraguay, although I didn’t envy his turning around and driving back down that five hour highway in the dark. Finally, with the sun behind some of the downtown buildings, we found the hotel.
Just the tiniest problem: it was out of business. The Guarani, the best in town in the “Official Hotel Guide,” had it’s windows shuttered, no sign and a police guard. This had happened just recently, obviously, because there was a Christmas tree in the lobby, and we were never made to know what was really up. It was a twinge disconcerting when we drove up to see the man who tried to help us look so pitifully sorry for us.
Whatever had happened, we asked for the best hotel in town and they showed us to it, and that was the Hotel Sabo, just around a couple of corners, and it must’ve had a half dozen guests on fourteen floors, so there was really no problem, and we checked in there for $140 a night.
Asuncion may be the world’s least interesting capital city, but that’s not to say it’s mean. It’s really just a simple place filled with agreeable, unassuming people. It’s set on gentle hills, and I remember ten years before, I knew a man who had gone to adopt a baby in Asuncion. He was the only person I’d ever known who’d been to Paraguay and I asked him what it was like.
“Beautiful,” he’d told me, and I wondered what Paraguay he’d been to. It’s not beautiful, but it’s not ugly either. Really, it’s just a simple place with agreeably unassuming people, none of whom speak any English.
At a place called Itaugua, known for it’s spider-web style lace, Mirja had a manicure/pedicure for two bucks while I walked through the dust and watched the horsemen and brightly painted buses until I found Bar Himilaya and had a couple beers. The temperature gauge hit 41 degrees on the way into town, which is 105.7 fahrenheit.
I bought Brazilian hot sauce. The restaurant where I found empanadas had Paraguayan hot sauce, so I enjoyed two hot sauces and empanadas and beers.
It was so flippin’ hot that they serve half litre beers iced champane buckets, with a glass. Elegance, Asuncion style.
On Saturdays, most of the shops just simply don’t reopen after siesta. Restaurant Bolsi was a good choice for dinner in large part because it was open. Walking down to the Plaza de los Heroes, where Restaurant Bolsi is, loud music streamed from all the shops that were open. Saturday night.
Saturday night or not, dogs lay about in the middle of the street. Street vendors sat at their carts with no customers. Those who were open were liable to be watching a tiny black and white TV propped inside their carts.
The feeling on the dark streets was the approximate opposite of danger (although we did walk past a knot of six girl prostitutes in tight pants, smoking and talking on the street corner). Never, even in the fading light that first night where the police had shut down our hotel, did we ever feel anything but welcome.
At Restaurant Bolsi they sat us down and set us up with our champagne bucket of beer and brought out cups of chicken bouillon. We were only the third table in the place, but that changed. Paraguayans do the Latin late dining thing.
Corn meal biscuits, not exactly cornbread, were delicious.
Now you’re right, when you visit a place and one of the things you remark on is the corn meal biscuits, it’s possible it’s not be the world’s hottest spot. Asuncion may not be very interesting, but its citizens are carefree. Maybe you needn’t visit. But if you lived there, you’d be happy.
A Fokker 100 took us home, operated by TAM, which is an acronym for something like Transportes Aereos del Mercosur, Mercosur being the economic union down here like NAFTA and the EU.
Felices Fiestas. Over the Argentine badlands (I don’t know if they’re called that but they ought to be, un-notable like the Australian outback from above) they came up the aisle and handed out Papa Noel Christmas ornaments. They showed kids (and sisters) the cockpit.
They asked, in English, “Would you like another beer, sir?” – a sentence never spoken in U.S. air space.
Six Catholic sisters, who obviously don’t fly much, joined us on this TAM flight. Grim at takeoff, they loosened up and they were all smiles and camera flashes by the end.
There was some prize
raffle. We didn’t understand it in Spanish, but they would call out seat
numbers and people would clap and someone would run up to the front to claim
their prize. One of the sisters even won. When we landed in Santiago the whole